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Stakeholder engagement – lessons from human rights impact assessments

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At the end of last month Steve Gibbons and I had the pleasure to speak at the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) conference in Florence, Italy. Like last year’s event in Chile, this year’s event was a great opportunity to share ideas and experiences about various aspects of impact assessment practice.

Stakeholder engagement, which was the subject of my presentation, was one of the main issues at the conference. Since this was also a crucial component of a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) we have recently finalised for an oil and gas sector project in Latin America, it seems timely to think about some lessons learned from stakeholder engagement in the HRIA process. Understanding the role – and challenges – associated with effective stakeholder engagement also allows us to get to the heart of the practicalities of implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) on the ground, particularly in respect of human rights due diligence.

Make the consultation process meaningful for everyone

A central issue is the question of how to make participation and consultation processes meaningful, both for the affected stakeholders and for impact assessment professionals. A first and essential principle is the importance of respecting the stakeholders’ social structures and processes for dialogue. At Ergon we also attach particular importance to finding the right person to conduct the consultations. This means finding someone who is neutral and, perhaps more importantly, is perceived to be neutral by all actors, and who can also engage in dialogue about human rights in a way that stakeholders can relate to by putting the issues in the appropriate context.

Consult with a broader range of actors

Another key learning is that extending the scope of consultations is essential to obtain reliable and meaningful information for the impact assessment study. Stakeholder engagement processes within the impact assessment context are very often limited to those communities living closest to a project and those most likely to be directly affected by it.

While this approach makes a lot of sense in terms of prioritising time and resources, it can often provide only part of the picture. In addition to those expected to be directly affected by a given project or business activity (eg communities, employees and subcontracted workers on site), a human rights impact assessment should engage with:

– those who may be affected (eg inhabitants of the region, citizens of the country);

– those who affect what happens (eg the project proponent, government authorities), and;

– those who from their broader experience know what could or will happen (eg NGOs, academics, national human rights institutions).

Finally, experience also tells us that good quality engagement with internal stakeholders from within the company or project proponent’s organisation is absolutely crucial to ensure the quality and relevance of the impact assessment process. This is often overlooked, because impact assessments have by nature an external outlook, looking at the project’s potential impacts on those outside the organisation. Dialogue with internal actors allows for an acute understanding of the nature of the project’s activities or operational phases, which may have differentiated impacts on rights holders, and is therefore essential in order to understand and potentially predict human rights consequences. It is also an excellent opportunity to design a human rights mitigation or action plan that builds on existing internal policies and operational processes in order to maximise its chances of being successfully implemented by the project sponsor.

But stakeholder engagement also has its limits

Despite these important elements of good practice on stakeholder engagement, there was a general acknowledgement at IAIA15 that stakeholder engagement has its limits. First of all, it does not automatically produce, or represent, a social license to operate. Just because the proponent of a project or particular activity is carrying out an impact assessment involving stakeholder engagement does not remove the need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the affected stakeholders on a continuing basis. Nor does it mean that there will be no opposition to the project. But engagement remains a crucial step in promoting mutual understanding between all parties and eventually gaining acceptability for the project, as well as implementing effective due diligence.