What do these have in common: a coffee cooperative in Timor, a shipping firm in Somalia, a mining company in Liberia, a garment factory in Haiti?
There is a story here, but telling it (for my book, Regulating Business for Peace) involved researching a series of gaps. It meant studying non-events, a ‘paucity of data…’, things that arguably should have happened and did not.
These gaps and non-events have, in my view, been the product of an institutional blind-spot in international efforts to build peace in countries trying to emerge from serious armed conflict.
How can one influence business to act in a conflict-sensitive manner if one does not consider it a stakeholder in peace efforts?
The gaps that I studied were gaps in seeing, recognising, engaging with, and influencing a sector of society (the business community) that overwhelmingly has a deep vested—indeed, invested—interest in building peace.
What the businesses listed above have in common is that they were deeply interested in consolidating sustainable peace. They had incentives to promote peace, and ideas about how this might work. They also have in common the fact that as far as we can tell, nobody in authority ever asked them about these things.
My book is about the gaps in policy and practice that I argue have affected international efforts (through the United Nations system) at peacekeeping and peacebuilding, in terms of shaping the ways in which the private sector (local or foreign, formal or informal) might help or hinder the likelihood or quality of peace in post-conflict countries.
What I found was this profound gap. In all the official documented history of UN peacekeeping, there is hardly any mention of the private sector. Peace operations are mandated to help host societies to build institutions of governance, and given a wide array of tasks. They are routinely told to consult women’s groups, elders, religious leaders, youth, and so on. Yet nowhere is business mentioned.
How can one influence (‘regulate’) business to act responsibly and in a conflict-sensitive manner, if one does not consider it a stakeholder in peace efforts? How can one conceive of building durable peace without sounding out those engaged in free enterprise, as a vital part of any free and prosperous society? How could one imagine understanding conflict or peace dynamics in Mogadishu (Somalia) without meeting those who run its import-export businesses, or hope to address decades of violence and grievance in Liberia’s hinterland counties without engaging the owners of massive timber or rubber concessions (and their private armies)?
My book explains the research journey, from Cyprus to Cambodia to Kosovo and the Congo. But more interesting, I think, is why the institutional blind spot has existed. Meetings with peace operations officials confirmed the silence in the official reporting and mandates. No, they said, we did not think to consult business; we were not authorised to; we do not understand business; business is corrupting; business is self-interested; business is not our business as peacebuilders.
Since my research started, things are changing – the gap is narrowing, the blind-spot easing. The UN now has a ‘Business for Peace’ project, for instance; every year in Oslo, a business is recognised for its contributions to peace. Yet something else is happening, related to trends in development policy generally. These have gone from ignoring business, to seeing it is as a development panacea. I have tried to describe this trend on my blog ‘Private Sector – Public World’.
I would not claim that engaging business in many cases studied would necessarily have had a huge impact on the quality of the peacebuilding processes there. The book notes a host of reasons to question how appropriate it is for policymakers to develop close relations with commercial actors. Yet to me it makes sense to bring as many partners on board as possible: post-conflict recovery is so hard, and so important, that we cannot afford needless blind-spots and gaps.