Companies in Fragile Contexts: Redefining Social Investment

December 2017 | Brian Ganson

Suggested Citation: Ganson, Brian. “Companies in Fragile Contexts: Redefining Social Investment.” Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement, Working Paper 2017/8. Subject to revision.

This paper was written as part of the research initiative entitled Engaging the Business Community as a New Peacebuilding Actor. It is a joint project of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement (ACDS), CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA), and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project aims to fill the large gap in evidence regarding the effectiveness of business efforts for peace, providing a framework and practical guidance for more effective planning and evaluation of business-peace initiatives, policies and practices. The paper is in the process of revision for publication. Its observations and conclusions are solely those of the author. Comments, critiques and corrections are welcome.

This study grows out of structured reflection with Norsk Hydro (“Hydro”) management and staff and some of their civil society and government counterparts in the state of Pará in the Amazon region of Brazil. It explores the company’s experience since its 2011 acquisition of aluminium-related mining and industrial assets in a region of acute sociopolitical tension and chronic violence, reaching levels otherwise typically seen only in countries at war. It reports on the company’s successes and challenges within three zones of operation that exhibit distinctive degrees of conflict and complexity. It seeks in particular to understand the company perspective: the lenses the company applies to make sense of the environment around it; how it frames the nature of the challenges; and the governance and management processes through which it plans and implements its responses to perceived obligations, risks and opportunities, internally as well as with other role players.



The study concludes that, the more fragile the context, the less meaningful it is to draw boundaries between the company’s operational impacts and the general socio-political conditions around it; inter-dependencies and systems dynamics loom too large. This puts into question much of the conventional thinking and practice on human rights, social, and environmental due diligence with their focus on identification and mitigation of “company impacts”; under conditions of heightened conflict and volatility, the company seems to be obligated to deal with everything around it, or effectively deal with nothing at all. A possible exit from this dilemma – not only conceptual but practical, as the company must in the end navigate its obligations, risks, and aspirations in such a difficult place – may be found in an understanding of barriers to sufficient coalitions for positive social change. This may lead towards a different kind of social investment: one that focuses more intentionally on helping to reinforce the social and political functions that are missing or compromised in the fragile context of which the company is part.