All Hands on Deck! U.S. Peacebuilders and Businesses Can Find Common Cause

The clear inflection point we are facing in the U.S. politically and socially is pushing businesses to rethink their role in society, increasing opportunities for collaboration with the peacebuilding community. The time is now to build more effective partnerships so we can all get to work accomplishing shared goals of a stable, inclusive and pluralistic democracy. These were some of the main take-aways from the recent session on Businesses and Peacebuilding convened by the Alliance for Peacebuilding Spring Series on Preventing and Reducing Conflict and Instability in the United States: Shaping What Comes Next.

What do peacebuilders need to know and how do we broker these partnerships? Jenny Vaughan from BSR, Alan Fitts from J.P. Morgan and Angela Baker from QualComm shared some valuable and actionable insights:

Peace is Good for Business: Stability is needed for businesses to be successful, so the underlying grievances and conflict dynamics in the U.S. are clearly priorities for corporate America. The rule of law, strong, trusted public institutions, and a society that is inclusive and free for all; these conditions drive business decisions of where and how to invest. While these issues have historically been tackled by government and civil society, today’s businesses must be involved in finding solutions to these increasingly complex problems.

Businesses Hold Many Pieces of Peace: There are many ways that businesses can (and are) addressing the drivers of conflict in the U.S. For example, social media and big tech companies are grappling with their responsibility to mitigate the societal harm incurred on their platforms; and private sector actors are increasingly playing a political role through advocacy campaigns, support for specific candidates, and joint statements on policy issues. Businesses are also making needed investments in communities suffering economic decline and have the ability to address pay equity, workforce development, and leave and insurance policies to provide better safety nets. Peacebuilders have an opportunity to help make the linkage between these efforts and a broader and coordinated peacebuilding agenda.

Changing Role of Business in Society: Recently the Business Roundtable amended the definition of a corporation’s identity. By taking a broader, more complete view of corporate purpose, the Roundtable encourages businesses to focus more on creating long-term value to better serve a broader constituency — investors, employees, communities, suppliers and customers. In addition, these customers are now looking for corporations to take a stand and express their views on social issues. Over the last 12 months there has been a steady rise of companies expressing solidarity with movements like BLM and outrage over the electoral violence on January 6th. Businesses have been banding together to protest state-level decisions that restrict voting rights and LGBTQI rights. The global pandemic has brought into sharp focus for corporations how fragile and interconnected our systems and institutions really are, and they are recognizing that they have a bigger role to play, together with government and civil society.

Translate Peacebuilding into Existing Corporate Frameworks: To help broker these potential partnerships, the peacebuilding community needs to use the language of business and should couch their work in terms of human rights, which is a well-established framework, easily understood and embedded inside corporations. The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights incorporates robust multi-stakeholder participation on businesses’ duty to protect human rights and prevent abuses. And while the framework remains voluntary, it is the best entry point to speak with corporations about the potential positive and negative impacts of their operations on society. Sustainable Development Goal 16 also offers a lens by which to engage with companies.

Activate the Incentive Structures that Drive Corporate Behavior: Several of the panelists stressed the fact that companies are deeply aware of reputational risks, legal liabilities and costs that will affect the bottom line. Therefore, a risk-mitigation argument regarding how they can prevent and mitigate harm will be most successful. While peacebuilders may want to stress programs and actions that are the “right thing to do,” we need to be realistic and pragmatic regarding the drivers for decision-making within companies.

Beyond Corporate Philanthropy: While corporate foundations offer important philanthropic funding, peacebuilders should build relationships with the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), human rights and risk mitigation teams inside companies to partner on solutions that can be incorporated into a company’s core business. The geography of where a company does business, who they hire, from whom they procure services, and how they engage with communities all affects the conflict dynamics in the U.S. Peacebuilders can support these internal champions with data, program ideas and external advocacy to build support from key corporate decision-makers.

Understand the Roadblocks: If companies benefit from more peace, why aren’t companies engaging more in peacebuilding activities? The constraints are often not a matter of willingness but are systemic. The current economic system still holds corporations to a standard of reporting short-term profits for their shareholders. In addition, many companies lack a deep understanding of the various local contexts where they have operations. Large corporations make decisions inside headquarters that are often far removed from local realities, with cascading decision-making frameworks that are grounded in legal compliance. Those teams that are focusing on human rights or closest to communities have a hard time affecting decisions at the c-suite level.

Actions for Peacebuilders: Given these opportunities and roadblocks, the panelists gave several recommendations for how the peacebuilding community can be most effective in involving corporate America in a peacebuilding agenda.

  • First of all, we can help to raise awareness of the conflict dynamics in the U.S. by sharing research and proven peacebuilding approaches within existing business forums. Instead of inviting business leaders to participate in our events, we need to go to theirs and speak their language. And we need to publish articles in the journals and publications that they read.
  • In addition, we can and should exert pressure from the outside, on corporate decision-makers, shareholders and customers to highlight when harm is being done and what specific actions can be taken to remedy it. Yes, we will often need to be critical of corporations, but should also be prepared to offer solutions.
  • We should be pushing for greater transparency, so that what companies are saying is in line with what they are doing.
  • And we need a more united front. It will be most helpful for peacebuilders to band together with a common message and an aligned strategy for specific companies, industries or geographies. Companies don’t appreciate being approached by several smaller civil society organizations asking for dispersed program support.
  • Finally, we should offer programs and actions that are tied to metrics of success and can demonstrate a return on investment for our corporate partnerships.

There is a recognition within the business community of the value and necessity of partnering with civil society. Some of the work now needs to be done on the peacebuilding side to better prepare our community for these partnerships, to find the right language and entry points, and to align around the solutions and actions we seek. No single action, no matter how big, will make the difference, but establishing relationships and building partnerships will open doors for the smaller actions that will allow peacebuilders and businesses to work for peace in the U.S.

Julia Roig is the President of PartnersGlobal and the Chair of the Board of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She has solidified private sector partnerships for Partners, in particular a long-standing global relationship with General Electric in over 10 countries. Julia writes and lectures often on topics related to Business for Peace; and, she has spearheaded linkages with entertainment and advertising industry leaders to support peacebuilding efforts, most recently pro bono campaigns to support the peace talks in Colombia and to combat polarization in Europe.

Alliance for Peacebuilding is the leading global network working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. Our 145+ members work in 181 countries.