Seventeen sustainable development goals, 173 associated targets, even more indicators and countless forums are dedicated to involving companies and the private sector generally in the UN’s global agenda to mitigate poverty, promote development and protect the environment. As business attempts to get to grips with demands from the public, investors, governments and NGOs and demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, the array of different routes to sustainability, using this framework alone, is dizzying. Often lost in this diverse agenda is the goal of peace, security and justice. But there is a vital role companies can play here: helping to build and maintain sustainable and resilient societies that are afflicted by conflict and crisis. Questions of peace and justice are not areas that companies always feel comfortable operating in. In the past they have left these issues to the high politics of diplomacy and states. Over half of companies choose to focus on just three SDGs on climate change, decent work, economic growth and responsible consumption. But as we become more aware of the links between different goals such as those between climate change and conflict, between social stability and decent work, it is increasingly evident that business must and can play a pivotal role in creating and maintaining a safer world, and building peace.
By 2030, the World Bank and the UN estimate that over three quarters of the world’s poor will be living in countries affected by fragility and conflict. Conflicts are getting longer, to an average of 37 years in 2013, and they are changing. Rather than war between states, increasing numbers of countries face cycles of violence, weak government, and instability. Companies big and small cannot escape the effects and implications of this trend, even if they do not think they work in conflict zones. Yet among the 17 SDGs, the least attention is often paid to Goal 16 regarding justice, security and institutions. Companies can do much to promote this goal, by linking action on other individual goals such as health, economic growth and inequality to foster resilient societies, and create the conditions for peace as well as a sound business environment.
Companies have many attributes for peacebuilding that are often overlooked by governments and NGOs focused on agendas such as business and human rights, where the emphasis is on compliance and stamping out abuses. While human rights are indispensable to building peaceful societies, and respective due diligence and conflict sensitivity plans are essential tools for operating in fragile parts of the world, companies can also act in other ways to influence sustainability.
Businesses are often the single most important presence on the ground with local knowledge. When other actors such as government and organised civil society are absent, companies often remain, continuing to operate and protect long-term assets. Investment cycles are usually longer than political cycles as governments come and go, and they are frequently even longer than outbreaks of intense conflict, so companies can represent a source of continuity and stability for local populations. Engaging with peace isn’t just about using companies’ financial resources; equally valuable are the logistics, information and capacities companies possess. Staff on the ground often draw on problem-solving skills to manage their workforce, deal with government and maintain operating plants. They often have to devise pragmatic responses to difficult situations. This mindset can be invaluable to building peace at the grassroots level, through improving the daily lives of people and communities that are vulnerable in the face of crisis.
By focusing on community needs, and by working collaboratively, companies can do much to shape the long-term conditions for sustainable peace. As part of its research and policy programme on business and human security, supported by the UN, LSE IDEAS has developed a guidance framework to help businesses work with other key actors at local level to build peace and achieve the ambitions of the SDGs. It proposes a new form of partnership between companies and actors in government and communities, based on the idea of rebuilding human security, which means protecting individuals and groups and enabling them to lead tolerable lives. ‘Human Security Business Partnerships’ focus on what is needed in any given local context to protect individuals and families, and help structure collaborative schemes between diverse partners. These partnerships help communities work with business to mitigate the risks that each faces, and to explore and increase opportunities that will benefit everyone. The core of this approach is identifying common ground and mutualising both risks and responsibilities so that both companies and local society gain. It is also about fostering a long-term dialogue to reset traditional relationships and move away from ad hoc bargaining, which can leave all sides feeling frustrated and bitter.
In my book, Corporate Peace: How global business shapes a hostile world, I look at examples of how companies have faced up to working in conflict and crisis environments. Actively working to promote peace and reconciliation may be new ground for many company managements, but I believe it will come to be seen as part and parcel of how responsible business operates in the years ahead. By becoming part of an ongoing conversation with local societies about how to achieve development with security, companies can benefit beyond simply ensuring a licence to operate.
Companies can shape and drive the transformation of societies that are going through political turmoil and violence. Understanding the private sector’s ability to contribute to this kind of transformation is the starting point for a deeper search for real sustainability in a turbulent world.
Dr Mary Martin is Director of the UN Business and Human Security Initiative at LSE IDEAS. The report ‘People, Profits and Peace. A human security approach to private sector peacebuilding and sustainable development’ is available at here; Corporate Peace. How global business shapes a hostile world will be published by Hurst in January 2020.