Doing business in war zones: Do global corporations have a peacebuilding role?

March 26, 2019

By Amanda Menas and Kate Roff

 

 

With global companies like Coca-Cola, Google, MTN, Unilever and Skype operating in conflict zones around the world, an increasing number of observers are asking: Do big corporations have a role to play in peacebuilding?

 

Part of the latest PeaceCon conference focused on peace and business, and leaders were quick to point out the benefits.


“A particular motivation for companies is that there’s the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage through engaging in peacebuilding,” says Jennifer Oetzel, from the American University.


Oetzel explains that companies in conflict zones that establish social ties, build social capital and understand the dynamics of the conflict are better able to manage risks and can survive where other businesses cannot. Experts also point out that consumers and employees are drawn towards responsible businesses.


"Especially the millennials–that's really important to them,” says Elizabeth Hume, vice president at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. “In terms of going to companies that are doing the right thing, that are being part of this bigger solution."

 

It’s not, however, to be confused with corporate responsibility. While businesses often run humanitarian or development projects that give back to a community, peacebuilding is more.


"It is not corporate responsibility, it's not the thing we do after we make profit–and then we are legal, and then we are ethical–which has been the typical model for corporate responsibility, kind of that 'do good',” says Teresa Jennings, head of the Rule of Law department for LexisNexis.


"This takes that next leap,” says Hume. “To say that corporations are part of the system in a country, even here within the US. They are part of it. They can be causing the disputes or the conflict, or be a part of that. They can also be part of the solution."


Convincing businesses to participate in peacebuilding isn’t always easy. The UN Global Compact is a voluntary initiative based on CEO commitments to take steps to support the UN sustainable development goals, such as SDG16. This goal aims to build peace, justice and strong institutions, and several businesses were tapped to help member states measure progress in the field. Delloitte, White & Case LLP and LexisNexis were asked to sit in, but Jennings is the first to admit there were challenges.


“The first few meeting they wouldn’t even talk to us,” Jennings says. “By about the third meeting someone said ‘good point’ in an elevator and ran away.”


“Now it’s really rich, people look for our advice.”


Jennings says that often businesses might be approaching an issue as a legal problem, training problem or government policy problem when it may actually be a rule of law and–potentially–a “peace problem”. 


“Businesses could, and should, get involved,” she says. “But you have to speak the language of business.”


So what should businesses do to build peace?


Experts recommend being conflict sensitive, and taking steps such as supply chain audits.


"I analyze the supply chain to see if they are inadvertently affecting the conflict, are they doing business with actors that may be part of the conflict who are trying to raise money to continue the conflict,” says Oetzel. “So companies can do a lot in that respect.” 


Talking to peacebuilding advisers can help, too. Groups like PeaceNexus are guiding corporations to better understand their impact in, and navigate, conflict zones. One Earth Future focuses on promoting peace through collaborative, data-driven initiatives and studies from the UN explore the role of the private sector in peacebuilding–with examples such as Microsoft’s partnership with the High Commissioner of Human Rights to track human rights violations. 

 

Another example of success is from an initiative in Colombia where over 100 companies, including Coca-Cola FEMSA and supermarket chain Exito, became involved in job training for demobilized fighters, providing a rehabilitation pathway that was otherwise severely limited.


"Corporations have a lot more power than I think even they thought they have,” says Hume. “And we are just seeing that more in the last few years in terms of seeing corporations stand up."

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