Business, conflict sensitivity and peacebuilding

I don't like violence, Tom. I'm a businessman. Blood is a big expense.

Violent conflict is bad for most businesses. Unless your business is actually related to conflict — say, arms sales or some form of security contracting — it’s generally pretty hard for commerce to thrive in the midst of violence.

But what about the impacts in the other direction? How does business impact conflict? One of the guiding principles of post-conflict reconstruction is that commerce will bring jobs, improve livelihoods, and reduce the incentive for fighting.

However, there are ways that business may also increase violence. The mild version occurs when trade in natural resources or illicit drugs provides funding to armed groups, either because they directly participate in the trade or because they “tax” it. The more extreme version? That would be Shell.

A recent report by the watchdog NGO Platform covers several cases in which Shell has actively fueled conflict and violence in the Niger Delta. This included payments to militia groups, as well as coordination with Nigerian government forces that have committed extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights abuses. Of course, this is all on top of the environmental devastation caused by Shell’s activities there. (For shorter summaries of the report, see here and here.)

Conflict-sensitive business

The Shell case suggests a good business-for-peace 101 lesson: don’t contribute to the violence. Corollaries to this include: don’t fund violent actors; don’t participate in the war economy; don’t undermine legitimate institutions.

This is analogous to conflict-sensitive development programming. The same principles of conflict sensitivity embraced by many NGOs — understand the conflict context, understand how your actions influence that context, ensure that your actions don’t exacerbate the conflict — can be applied to business. International businesses certainly conduct risk assessments to understand how a conflict will impact business; conflict-sensitive business means extending that assessment to measure the opposite direction as well.

A number of factors become clearly important. Hiring practices that favor one group can stoke conflicts. Environmental degradation that undermines traditional livelihoods can lead to higher poverty and tensions. More than anything, conflict-sensitive business means acknowledging that there is no “neutral” in a conflict-affected country. There’s no way to do business without impacting the conflict.

These principles sound pretty obvious. The problem is that businesses are profit-seeking, not peace-seeking. Those two aren’t inherently correlated. Some larger mechanism is needed to align the them. The Kimberley Process and similar cross-sector partnerships attempt to institutionalize these principles.

Peacebuilding through business

What about businesses that are ready to do something more for peace? Peacebuilding goes one step beyond conflict sensitivity in an effort to positively impact the conflict. Are there more advanced lessons beyond simply “create jobs” and “don’t fuel violence”?

As a matter of fact, there are. Businesses can partner with community organizations, NGOs, government institutions, and others to implement the same kind of peacebuilding activities that those actors conduct. This might mean providing funding or actively participating in those activities.

Furthermore, there are unique strengths that businesses bring to the table. A few examples include:

  • Acting as a “third side” convener for mediation between parties in conflict.
  • Providing physical meeting spaces for events that bring conflicting parties together — especially important in communities without other places to meet.
  • Promoting commerce that creates cooperation across lines of conflict, rather than competition between communities.
  • Participating in DDR (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration) programs — especially the reintegration phase, which often means finding jobs for ex-combatants.
  • Highlighting the economic benefits of peace.

As always, the efforts pursued should be specific to the local circumstances. Conflict assessment is a crucial component of any peacebuilding.

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Further reading

Here are a few resources on the topic: