Failing the Duck Test: Labeling companies as peace actors
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Sarah Cechvala argues that regardless of whether “peacebuilding actor” is an apt label for private sector companies, efforts to involve companies in a peacebuilding agenda will be far more effective if they account for the fact that, in almost every way, companies are different from peacebuilding actors. Continue reading for some of the more critical differences to keep in mind as policymakers try to involve companies in peacebuilding agendas.
American poet James Whitcomb Riley once wrote, “when I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then I call that bird a duck.” Since Riley penned those words, the “duck test” has become a folksy aphorism about the importance of abductive reasoning, suggesting that things often are exactly as they appear.
If we apply the “duck test” to current international policy discussions that label private sector companies as “peacebuilding actors,” they do not fare particularly well. Various multi-actor initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the post-Busan process, the UN Global Compact, and others, have asserted the “peacebuilder” label onto companies. All of these initiatives posit a central role for private sector actors in advancing peace. In fairness, there are clearly cases in which companies impact peace and conflict. But characterizing companies as “peace actors” overlooks all of the ways in which private sector companies are unlike established peacebuilding actors. They don’t walk like ducks, or quack like ducks. What sense does it make to call them “ducks”?
The label “peacebuilder” seems to be an odd fit for private sector companies when you consider the following:
Companies are for-profit entities
Companies operate for the purpose of maximizing profits for their shareholders. Companies set up shop in fragile and conflict-affected environments only if they think that they can generate profits there. If feasibility studies suggest that they cannot, then they will not work in those environments. In this respect, they are dissimilar to established peacebuilding actors (such as various UN agencies, humanitarian organizations, and peacebuilding NGOs), which work in these contexts precisely because they are fragile and conflict-affected.
Companies are fit for purpose
Companies are highly specialized entities, tailor-made to execute particular processes. In the extractive industries, for instance, companies are extremely good at extracting resources from the ground and bringing them to market. Staff are recruited for this purpose, and internal processes are designed with it in mind. Such companies are far more likely to employ engineers and lawyers than mediators or conflict resolution and community development experts. And staff KPIs (key performance indicators) are designed to encourage shorter timelines and greater profits, rather than social good.
Concern for social impacts is animated by the need for a social license to operate
Much of the work that companies do to manage their impacts on the wider society relates to gaining or maintaining a “social license to operate” – the approval of communities for the company’s presence, resulting from good impacts outweighing bad ones. The idea of the social license represents a minimum threshold for social performance that forestalls demonstrations, roadblocks, protests, or other obstructive action. Unlike peacebuilders, in other words, extractive companies strategize to reduce harm to (or below) a minimum acceptable level, rather than to build peace.
Companies seek stability, not peace
Few, if any, companies see themselves as peace actors. When asked about peace, they often take the view that peace belongs to the “political” sphere and is therefore outside the remit of corporate activities. Time and time again, we hear companies assert that when it comes to politics, “we are neutral” or “we want to remain below the radar [in politics].” Stability, on the other hand, implies a predictable operating environment. Companies have a strong interest in this, and it is a more realistic framing of what companies might deliberately pursue in political arenas.
Accountability structures hinge on ROI
The accountability of companies is to shareholders and corporate boards, who are primarily concerned with companies’ ability to maximize their return on investment (ROI). This, in turn, is the primary driver of corporate decision-making. Shareholders and boards, however, are almost always physically removed from the operational context and may know very little about it. In this way, companies are different from established peacebuilding organizations that are in many cases committed to social missions or donor or policymakers and logframes in which peace outcomes are the primary purpose of funded activities.
Positive peace impacts are often motivated by business needs
Evidence from case studies developed as part of CDA’s Business and Peace Project suggest that, when companies do involve themselves in efforts to resolve conflicts, they tend to be motivated by a need to solve a concrete business problem (such as access to a resource). These rare cases arise when companies conclude that major challenges to their business approaches stem from the existence of conflict or the absence of peace. Unlike peacebuilding actors, however, companies rarely conduct conflict analysis or assessments to understand how their activities interact with key drivers of conflict.
If it doesn’t quack..
Regardless of whether “peacebuilding actor” is an apt label for private sector companies, efforts to involve companies in a peacebuilding agenda will be far more effective if they account for the fact that, in almost every way, companies are different from peacebuilding actors. Companies have particular systems, mandates, and competencies that define the way they work. We don’t change any of these things by insisting that companies are “peacebuilding actors.”
Discussions about the role of the private sector in peacebuilding seem to gain greater and greater momentum without the benefit of these fundamental insights. Expectations that would be reasonable for established peacebuilding actors are simply transposed onto private sector companies. However they choose to label the private sector, policy initiatives related to business roles in peace need to be grounded in the practical realities of how, why, and by what means companies operate, and include the perspectives of companies themselves.
If it doesn’t walk like a duck, swim like a duck, and quack like a duck, then it’s not a duck, no matter what you call it.
About this article
This post is part of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects’ Business and Peace blog series. In partnership with the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement, CDA is undertaking a collaborative learning project on the topic of business and peace. The project seeks to enhance the evidence base on the topic in order to better understand how, why, and through what means private sector companies might be able to impact peace and conflict dynamics. Over the next several months, preliminary findings and other work products from this project will be posted here on CDA’s website. Click here to subscribe to project updates.
You might also be interested in reading the case studies this blog post draws from:
- How Businesses Can Be Effective Local Peacebuilders – Evidence from Colombia
- Business in the transition to democracy in South Africa: Historical and contemporary perspectives
- The Private Sector and Violence Prevention in Kenya
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About the author(s)
Sarah Cechvala is a Senior Program Manager at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. She has worked with companies in the Oil and Gas and Agribusiness sectors in a range of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Her areas of expertise are corporate social impacts, conflict sensitive business, responsible business practice, and aid accountability and feedback loops. She currently manages CDA’s work on Business and Peace and has facilitated collaborative learning processes and field research in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Recently, she led a case study on the topic of the private sector and peacebuilding in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines (case study is forthcoming). She holds an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from Boston University.