International Conference Explores Role of Private Sector in Development and Peace

On 2 September 2014, The Hague Institute for Global Justice hosted The Hague Conference on Business and Human Security, in collaboration with SPARK, an Amsterdam-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that fosters entrepreneurship and higher education opportunities in post-conflict societies. The conference brought together the private sector, think tanks, NGOs involved in entrepreneurship promotion, and representatives of governments and international organizations to explore the intersection between markets, the human rights responsibilities of states and businesses, and the potential of private sector involvement in building sustainable peace.

The morning session was opened by Melissa Powell of the UN Global Compact, who discussed the business community’s growing role in peacebuilding and elaborated on how the Global Compact has served as a key tool to facilitate their interaction. Her message was a positive one: in 15 years, the Global Compact’s membership has grown from 40 to 8,000 companies worldwide. This demonstrates that companies have realized increasingly the importance not only of respecting human rights in principle, but in proactively promoting them in practice.

A peripheral concern only a few years ago, corporate social responsibility has now entered the mainstream of corporate practice. While such figures are encouraging, Powell also described the Compact’s current membership as a “drop in the bucket” and expressed her concern that markets still seem to prefer short-term gains over sustainable long-term growth. In her keynote, she emphasized the ongoing need for more critical mass in companies around the world to ensure the Compact’s principles trickle down into everyday operations in all social contexts.

However, her experience with the UN Global Compact also led her to conclude that more and more companies acknowledge the vital linkages between their business practices and social stability writ large. With the new “Business for Peace Initiative”, the UN Global Compact team intends to further strengthen the many mutually construction points of intersection between the private sector and peacebuilding.

An expert panel then followed on the various challenges businesses face in meeting their commitments to global norms in the areas of human and labour rights, environmental protection, fighting corruption, and peacebuilding. While emphasizing companies’ responsibilities to live up to global standards of good corporate conduct, several participants also stressed that governments still have a crucial role to play in creating the right ecosystems that enable businesses to comply with global norms. Most companies want to be part of a positive dynamic; however, this becomes much more problematic when governments are not able to play a supporting role, or can even constitute a major obstacle.

The discussion also highlighted the valuable role civil society organizations play in mediating between companies and communities to address specific grievances that result from business operations, as well as the importance of equipping children and young adults with the necessary skills to start their own enterprises. In conflict-affected contexts, this is as much a matter of conflict prevention as social and economic development.

The conference then broke into separate thematic working groups to examine the above issues in more depth, drawing on the first-hand experiences of entrepreneurs operating in developing and conflict-affected countries. Participants considered a broad range of topics, such as the challenges businesses face when operating in conflict-affected environments, the need for linking global norms to local needs and realities, the role of government in enforcing norms of good corporate conduct, and the special importance of equipping small and medium-sized enterprises with the knowledge and tools to meet global standards.

The afternoon began with a keynote address by Selima Ahmad, founder of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry and winner of the 2014 Oslo Business for Peace Award, who spoke about her organization’s strategies for empowering female entrepreneurs.

Mrs. Ahmad asked the audience to consider the critical role women play in remedying social injustices and growing a stable economy, while also drawing attention to the additional barriers they face compared to their male counterparts when it comes to entering markets or accessing resources. She also stressed the importance of strong local networks to connect aspiring women entrepreneurs with each other, and to enable them to share best practices and lessons learned.

The conference also featured a timely panel discussion on the New Silk Road Regional Economic Cooperation Initiative and the role of the private sector in securing Afghanistan’s future post-2014. The panel participants, all of whom have worked or continue to work on economic and private sector development initiatives in Afghanistan and its wider region over the past decade, proposed various reinforcing paths for embedding Afghanistan within South-Central Asia, as well as strategies to mobilize private sector led revenue base for a largely aid-dependent government once the international presence in Afghanistan has scaled-back.

In a second round of breakout sessions, participants then had the opportunity to draw on a number of points raised in each of the plenary sessions to debate issues such as the potential role of the private sector for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, as well as in bridging the global digital divide, especially in the world’s least developed countries where continuously low rates of internet access remain a major obstacle to economic and social development.

The collaboration between SPARK and The Hague Institute for Global Justice yielded a day full of new insights, innovative ideas, and critical reflection on the future of human security and peacebuilding through private sector engagement. The conference also identified several areas where further work will be pursued in the areas of policy research, dialogue, and the development of practical tools and strategies to support entrepreneurs in fragile and conflict-affected environments.

The Hague Institute and SPARK intend to build on their new partnership, including through collaboration in support of SPARK’s upcoming “IGNITE! Conference” planned for 19 November 2014 and in preparing a policy brief on the business community’s role in policy building that draws on the exceptional contributions made by the diverse participants at The Hague Conference on Business and Human Security.

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