The social license in a nutshell
After reviewing a number of existing definitions and critiques of “social license to operate”, Chapter Two of the book makes the following observations about “the social license”:
- The social license relates to the activities of any organization. It cannot be directly managed or self-awarded, rather it is the accumulation of a number of factors that will be explored in greater depth in the book. It is these factors that organizations can manage, not the social license itself.
- It is much easier to notice the absence of the social license than its presence. The presence of the social license might be described as an equitable balance, or harmony, between different interests that allows an activity to continue and to thrive. However, as it is dynamic, it can always be withdrawn.
- The social license relates to what an organization does as opposed to what it is—i.e. it relates to the activities of an organization.
- The social license should be understood in social contract terms and therefore different types of organization will acquire the social license in different ways for their activities because they have a different relationship to the social contract. The classic distinctions are: for governments, by being accountable and effective servants of the social contract in society; for civil society, it is about strengthening the accountability of government or the strength of the social contract itself, and for business (whose primary purpose is not social) it is about not weakening the social contact or exploiting existing weaknesses—and finding ways of building capacity within the existing social contract without replacing it.
- Later in the book, I test the hypothesis as there is some evidence that on some issues, such as internet governance, dealing with remote communities or international public–private partnerships, business is being granted a much wider social license and is treated as if it were a social actor such as an NGO or even a government.
- The social license does not replace political license or legal license, in fact quite the opposite is the case. However, both legal and political licenses have limitations and they are increasingly reliant on the social license.
- The limitations of existing political and legal license need to be understood in an international context and against international norms such as human rights. Modern interpretations of social contract theory have made much use of human rights and so too does this approach to understanding the social license.
It is for this reason that Chapter Two starts with the latin epitaph “Nemo judex in cause sua” (no one can be judge of their own cause). The first two pages also focus on the Niger Delta story and quote part of Ken Saro Wiwa’s statement before his execution in 1995: “I predict that the scene here will be played and replayed by generations yet unborn. Some have already cast themselves in the role of villains, some are tragic victims, some still have a chance to redeem themselves. The choice is for each individual.”
So whilst I argue throughout the book that no organisation can award itself a social license, it can very much manage or influence many of the underpinning factors which result in its presence or absence. The book explores what some of these factors are drawing on a range of experiences.