The recent reactions from the heads of privately held companies such as Google and Starbucks to President Donald Trump’s travel ban remind us the private sector can be more fully engaged in the peace process as well as global justice.
With a shift in U.S. global engagement imminent, thinking more broadly about the actors who can best help create and support peaceful and just societies across the globe is prudent. Nowhere is this more evident than in Colombia.
Promigas Colombia, a large energy company with a strong culture of peace building, has established its own independent foundation, Fundacion Promigas. The foundation focuses on developing educational opportunities, such as the Jovenes + Emprendedores training program. It has 43 projects improving opportunities for an estimated 41,203 people. The company is also an active member of the United Nations Global Compact.
These private efforts are in contrast to hampered and delayed official public responses from the U.S. government. In a written response to Senate Foreign Relations Committee questions recently, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, hedged support for the Colombian peace process.
Yet, private intersection in political and public policy arenas is not always beneficial. For instance, corporations such as Talisman Energy in Sudan, have come under fire for unethical business practices in failed states and conflict zones.
When governments are not able to enforce the rule of law and hold actors accountable, profits often take precedence over people. This approach, however, is short sighted and can often have very negative long-term implications for the company’s bottom line. Given the high costs international businesses face in the event of political violence, being proactive in facing these threats is imperative. Corporate policy makers recognize the utility of engaging the community in peace building.
Colombia has one of the largest economies in South America, with untapped resources and human capital, while simultaneously experiencing one of the longest ongoing internal conflicts, with guerilla and paramilitary troops active since the 1960s.
The armed conflict in Colombia has huge material costs, amounting to around 3 percent of the gross domestic product. The civil war has killed an estimated 220,000 people, and an end to this violence is likely to produce both social and economic dividends.
Historically, companies in Colombia often faced large costs of conflict, such as kidnapping, violence, and pressure from leftist guerillas, which motivated them to become involved in building peace.
In 2014, an estimated $500 million was lost in oil revenues due to insurgent attacks on energy infrastructure. These costs have pushed the business sector to be very supportive of peace negotiations both to resolve the armed conflict and to protect assets and operations.
Promigas is not alone in engaging the peace process. In Mozambique, Lonrho was involved in high-level mediation to end the civil war. In both South Africa and Sri Lanka, business actors were a part of the negotiations teams.
The UN Global Compact highlights the roles Energoinvest, ArcelorMittal, and Komatsu Limited played in post-conflict reconstruction and peace building, as well as how Safaricom, Aastra Technologies and Promon built cultures of peace after conflict.
Corporations can be an important partner in the peace process. This comes in the form of support from foundations, partnerships with non-governmental organizations, and proactive community engagement.
Sumitomo Chemical worked with the World Health Organization’s Roll Back Malaria Partnership and developed a mosquito net that decreased the rate of infection by 43 percent. PricewaterhouseCoopers partnered with the UN High Commission of Refugees to create a skill-based educational foundation for 30,000 Sudanese refugee children living in Eastern Chad.
These efforts create and promote societies that are more likely to interact peacefully. They have important implications for creating value, encouraging development, community building, promoting the rule of law, and engaging in unofficial diplomacy. All are pathways for the private sector to help build peaceful societies and reduce conflict.
Public pressure and corporate action can lead to tangible policy changes.
Widespread news coverage, including gruesome images from Sierra Leone, led to public outcry about conflict diamonds. Public pressure, engagement of NGOs like Global Witness, and the willing, centrally structured diamond trade companies helped create the Kimberly certification process to ensure diamonds are not financing violence. While the certification scheme is not without its critics, it has helped to create greater transparency in the diamond industry.
To be sure, the very purpose of a private firm is to create profit and companies have an obligation to shareholders to do so. But innovative approaches to engaging a society beyond economic transactions can help insure long-term value and profits.
Important resources, such as the United Nations “Business for Peace” program and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, are public policy initiatives to reduce conflict.
In the private sector, numerous stakeholder and industry-led initiatives, such as the World Diamond Council and the International Coffee Organization, exist to assist companies in implementing responsible business practises. The private sector has an opportunity to shape conflict environments in important and positive ways.
With so much at stake and with the uncertainty of global partnerships, peace building is a priority, involving both private and public sectors in society. Engaging private actors who have the strongest interests and resources to proactively engage this global challenge may offer the best results.