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Private business and peacebuilding: more than a burden of funding

in Program

By Jillian Foerster: 

It is no secret that businesses make calculations in pursuit of profit. Nonetheless, satisfying shareholders can be compatible with social and international development objectives.  Outbreaks of violence cause destruction which leaves expensive infrastructural investments in ruins, value chains disrupted, production halted and human resources scattered. Meanwhile, long term stability allows for sustained profits and better prospects for emerging consumer classes and thus markets for goods.  Because of this basic reality, it is not difficult to imagine that there exists significant overlap between seemingly divergent core business interests and those of development actors working in conflict resolution.

Discussions about business and conflict have largely centered on mitigating the private sector’s enabling role, especially in the extractive industry.  Commendable efforts have been made in this arena through campaigns and multilateral initiatives that have developed standards and promoted accountability, including the UN Global Compact.  Now, there is a growing acceptance by extractive industries that pursuing a “triple bottom line” is not a burden but a boon, as sustainability and social programs help to secure assets and minimalize risk.

The private sector has a much greater role to play in global development than simply sharing the funding burden or engaging through philanthropic corporate social responsibility programs.  Businesses, the public sector, multilateral organizations, development agencies and civil society need to look toward more innovative and inclusive methods of peacebuilding which explore how the private sector can be more fully engaged in order to comprehensively address and end cycles of violent conflict.

Many examples already exist of successful, proactive interventions by businesses. Before the end of apartheid in South Africa, individuals and companies pressured political factions to interact and build relationships. These businesses formed a network that advocated for peace agreements and later funded and managed peace committees throughout the country after apartheid. In Sri Lanka, after nearly three decades of war, a number of enterprises based in the capital city recognized that conflict was quite simply bad for business and in 2002 started initiatives to strengthen civil society and spread awareness about the negative consequences of violence. A formal coalition, the Business for Peace Initiative is still active and now brings together over 15,000 large corporations as well as small and medium-sized enterprises.

Businesses possess other unique advantages to address societal challenges including their adeptness at publicity and media campaigns. Before Kenyan elections in early 2013, Safaricom, a popular telecommunications company that boasts millions of subscribers, paired with a civil society organization to send country-wide messages of peace to voters and provide a platform for reporting violence in order to avoid a repeat of the post-election violence experienced in 2007.

Private enterprises may also promote reconciliation. Social events in the workplace can encourage interaction between disparate groups and enterprises may even pursue deliberate job creation for ex-combatants, thus aiding their reintegration into society.  These examples and others also illustrate that, in the development community’s search for “local solutions,” the answer may be found in the domestic private sector. Not only have these enterprises perfected the art of thriving in a complex environment, but they have a better understanding of the local context and may have more of a stake in creating comprehensive solutions.  

Finally, the significance of industry’s rapid reaction capability cannot be underestimated. Development aid for post-conflict countries tends to reduce gradually over time and protracted humanitarian crises may also create donor fatigue, spawning not only a significant funding gap, but a narrow time frame to achieve substantial economic development before aid coffers deplete – an onerous task. Without the engagement of the private sector, international interventions will not only be unsustainable, but may position countries emerging from conflict to fail in the process of rebuilding.

Development actors already partner with private enterprises and deploy a vast number of programs aimed at strengthening local economic development, including micro-financing.  These efforts should conform to help established businesses not only recognize a need to adhere to ethical standards, but also their potential role in peace promotion, incentivizing their involvement and going beyond corporate handouts. 

Achieving peace is a vague and difficult mission. However, stability is a necessary prerequisite for development and ending extreme poverty.   As we approach the 2015 expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals – the current global development agenda – governments, the UN and other multilateral organizations should increase efforts to include more seats at the table for private industry representatives during the formulation of the revised agenda.  Otherwise, failing to fully capitalize on the expertise and strategic placement of the private sector will represent a missed opportunity for leveraging all available resources to creatively and effectively promote global security and development.

Photo credit: ÏŸ†Σ via flickr

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