Jasmine Campbell, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

Engagement concepts such as “broad community support,” “social license to operate,” and “free, prior, and informed consent" are fundamentally based on carrying out community engagement, i.e. building relationships.

While understanding your stakeholders is a preliminary step to any engagement process, the manner in which this is executed usually varies within each industry, company, and project location.

Alhough we can attempt to construct and theorize implementation plans, the practical reality of community engagement is that most (if not all) of the time it is a moveable feast, illustrative of the often unpredictable, dynamic nature of the human spirit.

The needs that are required to nurture the human spirit are captured through international human rights law. Simultaneously, as this body of law progresses, it becomes an expression of cultural identity that acknowledges human diversity. Furthermore, the need to differentiate between the three engagement concepts above seems to overcomplicate an otherwise very human process: that of engagement.

Is this conclusion an oversimplification of complex, well-debated concepts, or is it just plain common sense?

The surest way to achieve effective engagement is by maintaining genuine respect for the unique natures of people, communities, and cultures. Whether defined officially or not, respect remains a part of the engagement process by virtue of the fact that the human spirit, given its unpredictable and dynamic nature, can ultimately prevent or delay projects from moving ahead. We must remember that the power of the human spirit—individual or collective, indigenous or non-indigenous—has the ability to change the way we do business.

Getting everybody to agree on a project’s development is virtually impossible; dissent is almost always present. However, the need to implement a respectful process of engagement is essential to doing business. The question is then: To what extent does respect include consent?

Consent is currently a well-debated topic, and though greatly feared by many companies as a barrier to project development, it remains a part of the engagement process.

In reality, communities always have the freedom to exercise a “de facto right of veto.” (This concept is further discussed in a recent BSR report, "Engaging With Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.") The exercise of the "de facto right of veto" coupled with the varied interests of government and corporations has often led to massive human rights abuses across the world in many industries and from a variety of parties, resulting in serious damages to reputation, finances, and project development.

Engagement, however, is a process of respect. To minimize such risks, it is essential for companies to respect community interests and opinions and to genuinely listen to their stakeholders.

When engagement includes this type of integrated, interactive approach it can be very successful. When it remains process-driven only, the very meaning of engagement becomes less effective.

When used correctly, consent can be a tool to successfully achieve all three engagement concepts through formal agreements, social investment opportunities, community partnerships, creative engagement strategies, and investments of the right resources to the right teams (internally and externally).

Consent should not be feared but rather recognized as a better way of doing business: one that incorporates respect and has more sustainable win-win opportunities for all parties affected. 

Companies seeking to succeed must learn to be flexible and listen to the views and opinions of stakeholders. Companies should never underestimate the creative power of their stakeholders. With a growing educated middle class, rising access to information globally, and increasing use of information technology, engagement practices must learn to adapt to an otherwise dynamic and unpredictable project development environment.