As we reflect on another Christmas holiday period I can’t help wonder what has peace got to do with the board room or with business. Those of us with experience of any organization, of course, will be able to recount on-going conflicts and the need to apply conflict resolution techniques from boardroom to shop-floor. This suggests that conflict is simply a part of life, so we need to know how to handle it.
This starts to get even more interesting when we see the proposed appointment of Mr Tillerson as US Secretary of State (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-38305076 ). Part of the logic of that proposal is that big business can itself have a real effect on global relations- before any conflict. But business can also have an effect post conflict. Hence, the Portland Trust (2013) in a report on business and peace-building sets out four cases studies which do this, in specific areas of conflict resolution and peace building, in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the South Caucasus. The cases show that business contributed to peace under the heads of politics, economics, reconciliation and security.
Politics, including: lobbying and advocating for peace both in the community and to political leaders; enabling and supporting peace processes through finances, time and expertise; contributing to negotiating teams by acting as brokers.
Economics, including: strengthening the business environment and providing investment; generating economic activity and creating jobs; lobbying for policy and governance reform; encouraging joint economic activity and cross-community trade.
Reconciliation, including: building bridges between different communities and between state and society; removing discriminatory practices and promoting reconciliation in the workplace.
Security, including: providing jobs for former combatants; offering financial and logistical support for weapons collection programmes; operating as an early warning source of information on conflict recurrence or breakdowns in security.
The report goes on to suggest some key lessons about business practice in these areas. First, there is a stress on business as an apolitical and impartial actor in peace processes, provided it engages with all political parties. Strikingly this is exactly what the oil industry precluded in the Niger Delta case by developing such a tight partnership with the government, and thus associating itself with many of the problems with corruption and conflict.
Second, working in partnership, through associations or networks of organizations, strengthens the influence of business and provides protection for individuals involved. This reinforces the idea of shared responsibility.
Third, sustained involvement of strong leaders from within the business community is important to keep up momentum, precisely embodying commitment which transcends sectional interest.
Fourth, evidence suggests that a spectrum of peace-making activities, including those related to business, running at the same time helps ensure progress can still be made even if the political situation deteriorates. This can include development of greater cross-community ties through existing business associations, including Chambers of Commerce. Such groups provide a focus which is analogous to professional bodies, so they can be seen to move beyond simplistic interest of particular businesses. This can widen to the formation of specific business coalitions for peace, such as the Consultative Business Movement in South Africa or the Group of Seven in Northern Ireland.
Fifth, explicitly promoting the economic benefits of peace, or ‘peace dividend’, is a powerful tool provided the message is supported both by the business community and wider civil society. This might include development of cross-border markets and infrastructure projects; the exploration of the potentially supportive role that business communities in neighbouring areas could play; or mapping of existing informal economic activities between different parties (itself helping the process of peace building).
Sixth, engagement in activities from the ground up – through grassroots movements and civil society – builds support and helps business to tackle the underlying psychological effects of the conflict on the population (which can otherwise be a block to cross-community business efforts).
All this requires is an exercise in moral imagination (Lederach 2015), to see how all benefit from peace, and all are responsible for peace-building. So, taking liberties with the old Tom Paxton song, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with’….business.
Simon Robinson January 2017
J.P. Lederach (2005) The Moral Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Portland Trust (2013)The Role of Business in Peacemaking: Lessons from Cyprus, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the South Caucasus (London: Portland Trust