Pathways of Change, Summer 2016
Summer of 2016, a group of undergraduates had the chance to participate in mentored summer internships with partner organizations in the field of business and human rights. These organizations adopt distinct strategies for effecting change and promoting corporate accountability. The list of possible partners included:
- Next, an apparel company in Enderby, Leicestershire.
- Foley Hoag, a law firm in DC.
- Accountability Counsel, an NGO in San Francisco.
- Corporate Accountability International, an NGO in Boston is offered a Campaign Organizing Internship.
- Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, an NGO in Delhi, India.
- Multi-stakeholder Initiative Integrity, a non-profit research organization in San Francisco.
In addition to working with the partner organizations, the students conducted profiles of the people in their organizations and wrote “letters home” about the best way to effect change in corporate human rights practices. Each internship came with a $5,000 dollar stipend.
Michelle Khalid, placed with Corporate Accountability International, is a rising senior from Clermont, Florida. She is majoring in Political Science and International Comparative Studies. She participated in the Duke Immerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program freshman year and has since been involved in the Displacement, Resettlement, and Mental Health Bass Connections team. She helps co-direct the SuWA program and spends her Saturdays volunteering with the Community Empowerment Fund.
Sydney Smith, placed with Corporate Accountability International, is a sophomore pursing a major in Public Policy and a minor in Environmental Science and Policy. She is passionate about environmental justice, sustainability and preservation of regional and local ecosystems. At Duke, Sydney is a staff writer and associate editor for Duke Political Review and a member of Duke’s Climate Coalition.
Maura Smyles, placed with Foley Hoag, is a rising junior pursuing a degree in Public Policy and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She is passionate about policy reforms that would improve the wellbeing of marginalized youth populations, specifically focusing on migration and education policies. As co-founder and editor of inFlux: A Weekly Dispatch on Global Displacement, she seeks to spread awareness about issues facing refugee and immigrant communities around the world.
Sydney Speizman, placed with Accountability Counsel, is a junior majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Cultural Anthropology. Since the beginning of her college career, she has sought out international learning opportunities and spent the summer after freshman year in Accra studying Ghanaian culture and society. Last fall, she traveled to Brazil, South Africa, and India to explore how urban development impacts human rights, sustainability, and social justice.
Jack Stanovsek, placed with Praxis, is a graduating senior pursuing a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies with an Arabic concentration and minors in Political Science and Cultural Anthropology. His studies focus on the historiography of the recent Arab Spring uprisings and the political, cultural and sociological impacts these demonstrations created across the Middle East and North Africa. At the beginning of 2017, he will attend Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne, Australia where he will pursue a Juris Doctor.
Frank Jiang, placed with BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), is an Honorary Pathways of Change member and rising senior pursuing a double major in Economics and Political Science. As a Robertson Scholar based at UNC, he serves as Undergraduate Student Attorney General, and he has also previously interned with a management consultancy. He’s excited to combine those interests in investigation and advisory services at BSR, where his work will revolve around both conducting human rights impact assessments and developing sustainable corporate strategies moving forward.
Michelle Khalid – Passion Driving Passion
By Michelle Khalid
What is the most effective way to challenge corporate human rights abuses? How do you successfully balance the tension of deciding when it is worth it to work with corporations and when it is not? What roles do NGOs have in demanding shifts in corporate behavior?
These were just a few of the questions buzzing around my head when I entered Corporate Accountability International’s office for my first day of orientation. Over the next week, through various well-planned and extremely organized sessions, I was able to gain an understanding of how Corporate Accountability International (CAI) addresses the issues of corporate abuse and the role they have outlined for themselves in the sector of corporate accountability.
CAI is a campaign-oriented organization that began in the 1970s as a result of a conversation between four friends and activists in a car. What originally started off as a general conversation about the injustices facing their world quickly turned into a conversation about the role of corporate power in perpetuating those injustices. This conversation was especially salient given the then-recent exposure of baby formula companies using unethical and dangerous marketing and supplying techniques to target low-income women in the Global South. These women did not have the means or the know-how to properly use the formula that was being aggressively marketed to them by massive transnational corporations, and as a result malnutrition in infants around the world had increased. CAI, then named INFACT, was able to successfully create a nation-wide boycott of the industry leader, Nestle, which led to the adoption of a World Health Assembly Resolution about the marketing of breast milk substitutes around the world. With the Nestle boycott, CAI was able to change industry-wide abusive practices by targeting a leader within the sector and encouraging it to modify its behavior. This is a strategy that CAI has continued to employ in the campaigns it has led since the end of the Nestle boycott in the 1980s. It is also one of the reasons that CAI has been so effective in facilitating industry-wide change, as well as change within individual transnational corporations.
What Corporate Accountability International is best at doing is mobilizing people to fight for a more equitable world. Throughout our first week, and especially during orientation, this was a fact that CAI staff constantly emphasized. Its goal is to stop corporate abuse. However, as an organization, CAI recognizes that the most effective way to do this is to empower and mobilize the people whom corporations are directly hurting the most. CAI collaborates with a vast network of organizations and community leaders around the world, working to empower and educate individuals so they can take on the issues impacting their community. Just recently, CAI’s Challenge Corporate Control of Water made huge strides in Lagos, Nigeria. CAI along with many different local Nigerian NGOs, community leaders, and groups were able to get the World Bank to stop pushing Public-Private Partnerships of water in the city. This was largely a result of widespread protests by many local groups.
I find this aspect of the organization to be extremely important. Corporate Accountability International has focused heavily on encouraging individuals to speak out against corporate abuse and has provided them a platform to do so. In an environment where large corporations, especially in the Global South, often silence individual voices, the opportunity CAI provides becomes even more important. CAI reminds individuals around the world about the power they have in shaping their world. Although an individual action might not change the world, that one action combined with the actions of others around the world has the ability to impact meaningful change.
One of the most exciting parts of my first week has been getting to know the organization, but more importantly getting to know some of the wonderful people who make up the organization and thus make the success of Corporate Accountability International possible. The individuals whom I have met over the past week have consistently gone out of their way to make me, and all of the other interns, feel very welcome inside the office. Through the orientation sessions led by different members of staff, I have learned so much about how many of the different staff members ended up at CAI and about the passion that drives them to continue doing the work that they do. All of the individuals whom I have had the opportunity to talk with are extremely committed to challenging corporate abuse by empowering and mobilizing individuals from around the world—speaking to not only their own passion but also to the strength of the organization. Passion drives passion. That’s an important lesson I have learned about organizing so far, if you are not committed to the cause, getting others to join becomes nearly impossible.
The very space that Corporate Accountability International occupies is a testament to its mission and goals. Located in the middle of downtown Boston, the office is a large primarily open layout space that encourages conversation, open dialogue, and collaboration. A large mural of the earth outlined and filled with languages from around the world occupies the back wall emphasizing Corporate Accountability International’s mission to protect people from around the world. Walking through the office, looking at the various milestones that have marked the success and continued work that Corporate Accountability International is doing, I cannot help but be excited for the upcoming summer and the role I will get to play in the work that Corporate Accountability International does.
Maura Smyles – The End of the Beginning
By Maura Smyles
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
These words came from a conference phone placed on top of a long table at the front of the meeting space, where five panelists sat and listened to a phone interview with the event’s special guest. Well he wasn’t technically a guest as he was only with us virtually, but that’s beside the point. I sat facing the panelists, among an audience of students, attorneys, and activists who make up the apparently close-knit business and human rights community of Washington, D.C.
Yes, this inspiring quote is originally by Winston Churchill, but last Thursday night the words were spoken by an entirely different leader in the international arena, John Ruggie. June 16, 2016 marked the five-year anniversary of the unanimous endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council, and Professor Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights and author of the UN Guiding Principles, echoed Churchill’s famous words as he offered his opening reflections at a commemorative event co-organized by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB).
What did Professor Ruggie mean when he described the Guiding Principles as the end of the beginning for business and human rights? Five years ago, he said, the parameters and perimeters of the Business and Human Rights space were established. There is still much progress to be made, specifically within national governments and in the realm of judicial remedies, but thanks to the Guiding Principles we now have a common language and framework to guide our discourse. The responsibility of businesses to respect human rights is now widely accepted, but there remains work to be done in forming a consensus about what respect for human rights looks like in practice and ensuring corporate compliance.
As one panelist pointed out, the very existence of this Pathways of Change program, which places undergraduates in internships related to business and human rights, is a sign of how far the field has come in recent years. It’s a sign that the beginning of the business and human rights movement has ended. International lawyers have long been interested in the obligations of businesses with regard to human rights, but to have students already familiar and engaged with the field as undergraduates shows a great deal of progress.
To that end, this is my third week as an intern in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practice at Foley Hoag LLP. For some background, Foley Hoag is a prominent law firm based out of Boston, MA, with additional offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and Paris. The firm is known for its long record of success in diverse industries such as life sciences, healthcare, technology, energy/renewables, investment management, and international litigation and arbitration. The CSR practice was established over a decade ago and provides major multinational corporations, international financial institutions, and governments with legal advisors who guide them through the challenges and opportunities of globalization. The attorneys help their clients to design and implement policies for social and environmental responsibility, as well as to ensure compliance with both current legal requirements and emerging expectations, including those outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In my role as an intern, I have primarily conducted research on legal issues that are relevant to the fields of business and human rights and corporate social responsibility and briefed the attorneys within the practice on the potential implications of various laws and policies for their clients. Such topics have included privacy protections for employee medical records in the context of a social audit, new regulations pertaining to rights-of-way on Native American land, and reporting requirements for corporate efforts to detect and eliminate forced labor in supply chains. I have learned a lot through my research assignments and have been able to pass along the insights I’ve gained to the attorneys.
As I listened to the diverse group of panelists speak to the developments and challenges they’ve seen for business and human rights in their respective sectors, with public, private, and nonprofit all represented, I found myself reflecting on where Foley Hoag’s CSR practice falls in this rapidly evolving space. In contrast to most, if not all, of the other Pathways partner organizations, Foley Hoag is a part of the private sector and works quite closely with multinational corporations. In that sense, it stands apart from the large network of NGOs working to build accountability mechanisms through policy change and public awareness campaigns. Publicly, attorneys must represent the interests of their clients, so these sorts of public shaming techniques are not always available to those in Foley Hoag’s CSR practice. However, I also view the practice as quite distinct from industry groups, which are generally known to oppose policies and regulations governing corporate noncompliance with human rights standards. From my experience, attorneys in the CSR practice are deeply committed to human rights issues and the advancement of related policies. During my short time here, I have already seen important opportunities for collaboration between the private and the nonprofit sectors, with attorneys in the CSR practice acting as bridges between the two. Through their connections with NGOs, the attorneys at Foley Hoag are able to make recommendations to their clients about how best to engage with community stakeholders. They also have access to corporate spaces in which NGOs are not always heard, making it possible to advance a human rights agenda from within companies.
Maybe the answer to my question about where Foley Hoag fits in the spectrum of private and public organizations is that the lines dividing organizational types are less sharp than they first appear. Looking back I realize that I came to D.C. with an overly simplistic view of the different actors: those in corporations were the bad guys, and those in NGOs were the good guys. But after hearing the comments at the event last night and seeing how people in the crowd from all different sectors had worked together in former positions and are friends, I stand corrected. For example, one panelist is currently in the private sector working for a company with a strong commitment to human rights. He shapes their policies and practices for corporate social responsibility and respect for human rights. Before taking that position, however, he worked in both the nonprofit and the public sectors. From an accountability perspective, this revolving door phenomenon—which characterizes much work that falls at the intersection of public and private—is problematic. But it may also be a strength: it allows for coalitions and understandings to emerge that may not be possible if people remained in their segregated spheres.
The blurring lines and merging spaces between corporations, civil society, and governments may be another sign of the end of the beginning as the business and human rights field gains credibility. Or maybe the lines have always been murky, and I was just wrong all along. That’s definitely possible.
Sydney Smith – Breaking the (Seemingly) Endless
<br>Chains of Corporate Power
By Sydney Smith
“Kraft foods is owned by Phillip Morris.”
Phillip Morris is a multi billion dollar corporation, mainly recognizable as the distributer of Marlboro cigarettes and its notorious lobbying and sales practices, such as denying the science of the dangers of nicotine, advertising and marketing to young audiences, especially in the Global South, where tobacco restrictions and lack of education result in millions of people becoming addicted to cigarettes. It may seem odd that the household name for mac n’ cheese is also owned by one of the largest tobacco producers, but this is a reality far too common in the chain of command for corporations where two seemingly unrelated companies are often owned by the same parent corporation.
It is my first week at Corporate Accountability International (CAI) and all the interns are being briefed on the organization’s campaigns. This includes information on corporations that own other companies and brands. What we see is that familiar brands can be traced to a transnational corporation that has had some major destructive and negative influence in the US and abroad. For instance, many household dishwashers are produced by GE, a company I generally only associated with households products. However, GE was liable for the cancer-related deaths of its workers as a result of nuclear exposure in Washington that the corporation adamantly denied in the 1980s (http://www.stopcorporateabuse.org/success/oscar-winning-documentary-exposes-ge). Something as simple as grocery shopping can lead unknowingly to buying products owned by one of the biggest tobacco companies. Go to your local grocery chain and there is almost no way to avoid supporting big agriculture companies, such as Monsanto, even despite efforts to buy organic foods. During some of orientation, I therefore feel more disheartened than I can remember. Where does this chain of corporate influence end?
CAI is a nonprofit dedicated to ending life-threatening abuses by global corporations and increasing their accountability to public institutions and people around the world. It does so partly by informing us about the less visible chains of corporate influence. CAI presents itself as an activist organization that really empowers its members. While some have deemed CAI as radical or idealistic, its employees have a humble perspective on the work they do—it is not radical, rather it is necessary.
One of the things I first notice about CAI is its vibrant office—in terms of both the people and the space. There is a lot of open space for collaboration and easy communication. People are willing to chat, get to know one another, and make friends. Lunches in the kitchen consist of people sharing food, stories, and bringing fresh ingredients to work as if it were their own home. It is also great to be surrounded by so many other interns (20 of us total) who come from different interests, universities, and backgrounds. CAI has an approach to social advocacy that solely focuses on corporate abuses. Their approach consists of selecting the largest and most influential transnational corporate targets and creating strategized campaigns with clear demands, such as asking McDonald’s not to advertise to children and their campaign to end the inclusion of fossil fuel companies in climate negotiations and pollution talks.
CAI recognizes that it cannot compete with such large organizations in terms of clout and money, but they do have assets in the form of individuals and those who are committed to social justice, especially regarding corporate abuses. CAI wants people to care and be passionate about the work they do. They see human interactions and relationships as tools to achieve their goals. This was demonstrated by the week-long orientation for interns that was filled with group lunches in the park along with personal and lengthy discussions about the complexity of nonprofit work and human ethics. Orientation allows us, the interns, to feel like a part of CAI and familiarizes us with CAI’s staff. I leave orientation having a basic idea of everyone in the office and what field or campaign they belong to. It is rewarding to hear about all the incredible progress CAI has made from its humble beginnings, and to learn about past campaign victories—such as the Nestlé campaign and the recent victory in preventing the privatization of water in a small Pennsylvania town. In addition to moments of feeling disheartened, orientation leaves me inspired too.
I do not find easy answers to my own questions, such as about the power of corporations. But, through the orientation, I learn about CAI’s strategy of empowering individuals and leveraging the power of individuals, and realize it is a key step towards a response. I realize that corporate abuses can be, and are, lessened by the efforts of CAI. In the face of powerful companies, the actions of individuals can — and do — accumulate to make an impact.
Jack Stanovsek – Argument and Engagement
By Jack Stanovsek
“Yes I get what you’re saying Priya, but what’s the point of even having these NVGs if they’re just going to reinforce what the law already says!” Ishaan’s rich British accent hung in the air searching for an answer, enraptured in an argument with Priya to his left. The two of them are colleagues debating the merits of India’s National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business, a set of nine non-binding principles that are meant to encourage Indian companies to engage responsibly with their shareholders and adopt ethical practices in their internal and external operations. Aditi looks to me and lets out an audible sigh, her eyes glazed over from the familiarity of the subject. The four of us decided to get dinner together after work, currently weaving our way through one of Delhi’s congested highways crammed into a white micro-taxi. Outside, horns blare from the hoard of vehicles surrounding our taxi, piercing through the window as Priya furrows her brow trying to develop a rebuttal.
This isn’t anything out of the ordinary—while Praxis, our office, encourages argumentation between all staff members to strengthen our logical reasoning, Ishaan and Priya seem to have a peculiar habit for escalating arguments quickly. “But Ishaan,” she starts, “you can’t just say NVGs are only about the law! I think they’ve done a good first step for India, and besides they even go further and ask more out of compan–” “But you see!” Ishaan interjects, “It’s as if we’re trying to reward companies just for following the law which they should be doing regardless!” The taxi driver weaves his way off the highway and into Hauz Khas Village, a modern street bustling with groups of younger Indians dressed to the nines. I fumble my way out of the front seat and into a wall of humidity that’s become a familiar greeting to me anytime I step foot outside.
Aditi and I try some semblance of small talk away from Ishaan and Priya as we walk towards the restaurant. Climbing up the stairs to the restaurant’s entrance, the two of them set their opinions aside as we sit down at a wonderful table with a splendid view overlooking fourteenth century ruins illuminated under the fading sunlight. The ensuing dinner saw vibrant curries and warm parathas shared amongst delightful company interjected with a lot of laughs throughout the night.
It’s been four weeks since I started working at Praxis and all of my colleagues are genuinely engaging in ways that compel me to work harder towards enacting change. Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices is a non-profit organisation registered in 1997 under India’s Societies Act. Originally a small initiative between a few colleagues from a development NGO in 1992, Praxis has since spread throughout the country with several offices in major cities in India. Its aim is to facilitate participation in the democratisation of development processes throughout India to pave the way for an equitable society without poverty.
The context Praxis works within is both incredibly enthralling and immediately relevant. India is experiencing an unprecedented amount of economic growth, eclipsing China as the fastest growing emerging economy of 2016. In order to capitalise on this growth, the Indian government is enacting a series of public-private partnerships throughout the country to expedite development. This has not come without significant cost—human rights violations, labour rights violations, environmental exploitation and corruption are endemic amongst these development projects.
Praxis’ work today is as important as ever. While tracing the disastrous effects made for the sake of a development agenda, we attempt to report on injustices in order to, at the very least, ensure impacted communities are never completely silenced. In addition to compelling the Indian government to engage in sustainable and equitable development, Praxis also engages several recent international frameworks reinterpreted into an Indian context like the aforementioned NVGs. Our current initiative seeks to encourage companies to disclose information relevant to the NVGs in order to clarify their stance towards ethical business. This often involves partnering with India’s top companies to highlight areas of disclosure that need improving.
Ishaan and Priya’s argument in the taxi is a poignant dilemma that resurfaces regularly in my work—what’s the best way to enact change? Through binding obligations or voluntary responsibilities? Through engagement or condemnation?
For Ishaan, the NVGs reinforce a shallow commitment from companies to operate ethically. When Wipro, an Indian information technology company, was lauded for its stance on ethics last year, he heavily criticised their accolade. Explaining that Wipro didn’t even follow the law let alone extend beyond the bare minimum of ethical practice, Ishaan fears non-binding frameworks like the NVGs water down companies’ obligation to act as responsible entities and further devalues the significance of an already substandard legislation compelling companies to do good, or at least to do better. Non-binding frameworks in this view should go beyond reinforcing existing legislation and extend to the pinnacle of ethical practice.
Conversely, Priya highlights the redeeming qualities the NVGs possess in enacting change. In her view, the NVGs are a pragmatic solution for the government and civil society members to partner with companies to engage more closely with ethical practice. While the NVGs may not be ideal, they can be employed as a practical method to continue conversation with companies about acting ethically. Change is then a gradual adoption driven by the companies themselves rather than a legal obligation imposed upon them.
While robust enforcement may increase participation in ethical practice, is it the most effective pathway for change if businesses end up resenting the measures placed upon them? Shouldn’t businesses act ethically for the sake of doing good rather than fulfilling the expectations placed upon them by a governing authority? Conversely, can we even trust companies to act ethically by waiting for gradual change when lives are quite literally held in the balance due to their operations? Surely there must be a way to reconcile these two practices; enforcement and idealism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Part of my remaining time at Praxis will be spent exploring this idea further, as well as exploring various other pathways of change.
Sydney Speizman – Putting the Numbers in Perspective
By Sydney Speizman
When I filled in the last cell on my Excel spreadsheet, I was floored to see a sum of over $3 trillion pop up. I spent a large part of my first few weeks with Accountability Counsel calculating the amount of money involved in international development, aid, and business (after reading dozens of financial statements, I can confidently say that I will not be following in my father’s footsteps and becoming an accountant). Even though the individual numbers I was inputting suggested that the total would be high, it was, and still is, hard for me to wrap my head around the impact that trillions of dollars worth of projects has—both positive and negative—for communities around the world.
Coming into this summer, the phrase “business and human rights” made my mind immediately jump to huge multinational corporations, not development projects aimed at expanding infrastructure and stimulating developing countries’ economies. Despite this perception, international aid and development is a massive industry of nearly $1 trillion annually, only slightly less than the $1.3 trillion spent in private foreign direct investment in 2014. Even though these projects are purportedly altruistic, they often disrupt communities’ way of life and result in health and environmental hazards. Therefore, it is critical that the financial institutions funding these projects are held accountable for any human rights and environmental violations that occur, just like with major corporations.
This is where Accountability Counsel comes in. Accountability Counsel’s small team of lawyers, based in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and South Asia, empower communities to utilize little-known mechanisms attached to many international financial institutions. Called “accountability offices,” they give people affected by internationally-financed projects the opportunity to report any violations of the lending institutions’ policies. Companies based in countries that have agreed to the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises also have accountability offices attached to their overseas actions. In many cases, these accountability mechanisms are the only means people have of expressing when projects are negatively impacting. Often, this is the only forum where they can add their voice to the dialogue around international development – and be heard. These mechanisms are definitely flawed, but their existence creates a window for progress, and a few standout success stories offer a glimmer of what the future could be. However, only about 40 percent of the more than $3 trillion involved in this financing is subject to accountability mechanisms. This means that almost $2 trillion is being spent without even a weak way to challenge it.
Realizing that this vast sum of money is essentially unregulated in terms of the human rights abuses it enables drives home for me just how critical it is that we increase the availability of these accountability mechanisms and create new ones. Sure, many of the accountability mechanisms are politicized, inaccessible, and self-regulated. Despite these flaws, they give affected communities and civil society organizations leverage to improve practices in international development and business that would otherwise be nonexistent.
In his post, Jack wrote that when it comes to human rights, enforcement and idealism do not need to be mutually exclusive. The intersection of these two ideas perfectly captures where I see Accountability Counsel’s strategy fitting into the larger picture of human rights advocacy. Among the other Pathways of Change organizations, and in the business and human rights field in general, Accountability Counsel’s role is incredibly unique. In fact, it is the only organization in the world that specializes in helping communities to utilize accountability offices. By working within the established accountability system to make financial institutions uphold their existing policies, Accountability Counsel occupies a space that is neither the outside public shamer (like Corporate Accountability International) nor the internal ethical compass (like Foley Hoag’s Corporate Social Responsibility team). However, the progress made on both of these fronts is vital to the success of Accountability Counsel’s strategy. In order for accountability mechanisms to be meaningful, institutions’ human rights policies must be robust; and in order to turn soft guidelines into adopted practices, corporations need to feel public pressure to act ethically. During my first few weeks, it has been fascinating to see how the seemingly competing notions of enforcement and idealism not only come together in Accountability Counsel’s work, but how necessary both are in creating tangible change.
Frank Jiang – Doing Well to Do Good
By Frank Jiang
At the first staff meeting of my internship at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), CEO Aron Cramer recounts a recent field-based trip to Southeast Asia. Part of that trip involved working alongside the representatives of a major, wealthy, Western corporation. “Something felt awfully strange,” he says, “doing that in a country ranked 158th out of 166 on the Human Development Index.”
One doesn’t have to get on a jet to recognize the juxtaposition Aron identifies. Glancing out of our 12th floor window, I can see the hustle and bustle of the Financial District below—lush rooftop gardens, cantankerous buses swerving between pedestrians, a cloudless San Francisco day. BSR is “a global nonprofit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability.” One of its core goals is to help create a world in which everyone can “lead a prosperous and dignified life.” Despite that mission, however, I can’t help but sometimes feel disconnected from the communities that BSR, by working with companies, ultimately aims to help. Up here, our glass windows mute outside noise.
Aron’s comment has sobered the room, and people murmur softly in agreement. “Did you hear the news in Papua New Guinea?” Jonathon, Finance Manager, asks Aron. “Thankfully you left before the shooting.”
I hadn’t heard. Only later, when I returned to my desk, did I run a search for the country on Google News. And there, buried under a stream of articles about the national football team, was an article covering the student protests against the government—protests that had just been fired upon by heavily armed police. Few major news sites had picked up the story.
At BSR, I often stumble into this dichotomy. It’s easy, sometimes, for me to look at BSR’s sleek office space, its disciplined branding, its vigorously filled Outlook calendars, and imagine that it is just another corporate setting. But then BSR’s dedication to social equity—captured by Aron’s discomfort, and Jonathon’s awareness of unreported human rights violations—becomes apparent. How does this make sense, all under one roof?
To start, I guess BSR has always been sui generis. Formed in the early 1990s, BSR occupies a fairly unique seat at the corporate social responsibility table. Rather than externally name, shame, or prosecute corporations for bad practice, BSR works as an independent business advisor and collaborator. It specifically offers three services: a cross-sector membership network of companies, thought leadership, and consulting.
I work within the Human Rights team. To better contextualize the service offerings to human rights, I’ll briefly explain the work I’m doing: for the Human Rights Working Group, composed of BSR members, I’m identifying business standards for reporting practices; in terms of thought leadership, I’m editing a Good Practice Note on corporate human rights trainings; for consulting, I’m working on a project where our client, a delivery and supply chain service, has requested a human rights impact assessment and strategy.
That last project has been the one I’ve spent the most time on so far. Over the phone, I’ve heard several senior managers emphatically proclaim their company’s dedication to ethics.
“It’s hard,” Cassi says, “to get them to open up sometimes.” Cassi is an Associate at BSR, and she often endures my endless questions. She continues, “Their company is actually doing pretty well. It’s just hard for senior management who don’t otherwise interact with human rights personnel to realize that we’re not external auditors, that we’re just trying to help them improve.”
Because of the wariness some companies exhibit, though, at times I question our ability to be effective. Even if senior management were fully forthright, I wonder, are they only hearing about their company’s human rights impacts through several layers of employee filters? And by asking them, are we simply adding one more?
“Right,” Cassi answers. “A project like this is really high-level. But it’s our hope to at least identify the general risks, and introduce them to our client. After we’ve planted the idea, they often call back to hire us for a closer look at some of their bigger risks. And that’s when we can really work on the ground.”
This is a lesson I’ve quickly learned. To quote my BSR mentor, Peter, “You don’t hit home runs in corporate social responsibility, you just try to bunt singles.” It can be frustrating to work with companies that have obligations beyond the merely ethical, but corporate change is as necessary as it is difficult. And that brings me to a related lesson I’ve learned, less from direct quotes and more from feeling, by osmosis: To further social change, to promote human rights, BSR pragmatically chooses to speak in a language familiar to the businesses they hope to improve, and that resonates throughout the organization’s culture. Because of its corporate-like professionalism, BSR feels, to me, more accessible and credible to for-profit companies. And as a result, BSR is also more effective, more able to extract insights from interviews, and more able to deliver real corporate change. At its core, BSR’s purpose remains social equity.
As an intern, I feel like I’m pretty inquisitive, often asking anyone who will listen why BSR operates the way that it does. Almost surprisingly, I’ve always received an answer, reflecting the organization’s deep intentionality about the way it works. But as I become increasingly familiar with why BSR doesn’t lobby governments (it wants to retain independence, not be seen as a representative of its network) or why it doesn’t rank, name, or shame companies (to maximize honesty, it wants clients to see BSR as a source of help, not pressure), I also start to wonder—is this the most effective way of spurring corporate change? Are all those roles equally necessary and important, or does one hit triples while we bunt singles?
With Pathways of Change and the six weeks I have left at BSR, I’m excited to find out.
Michelle Khalid – One Coin, Two Sides
By Michelle Khalid
As a college student, the thought of success is ever-present in my life. College is often advertised as the first step on the path of success. However, if there is one thing Duke has taught me, it is that the path to success is rarely obviously laid out and success is unlikely to be obtained through a one-size fits all approach. Developing a broad metric to adequately measure success is often difficult because the definition of success itself is often elusive. Though my initial understanding of success was shaped primarily through my experiences in college, my work with Corporate Accountability International has helped me further develop my conceptions of success, especially as they relate to issues of human rights violations.
Using the language of success to talk about mitigating corporate human rights violations makes defining success even more difficult. “Success” in one area does not mean the people affected by one abuse are better off, nor does it even really imply that the issue has been resolved. Consequently the question at hand becomes: what does success look like in a world where business and human rights intersect? Is success based solely on outcome? When the defined goal has been met? Or can we measure “success” not by outcome but by process instead? Can the journey to an outcome be successful even if the outcome itself is not successful?
During my internship at Corporate Accountability International, I have come to realize that success can only be aptly defined when it is looked at concretely — through the lens of a specific organization and its own ideals. Corporate Accountability International has largely defined success by their ability to encourage industry leaders to shift certain behaviors, which has often resulted in a change in industry-wide practice and the introduction of new regulation.
Corporate Accountability International has never had a failed campaign. Since its conception more than 40 years ago, CAI has been successful in accomplishing what it has set out to do—change corporate behavior to mitigate the human costs of operation—or better stated: to encourage corporations to put people over profit.
Though the previous statement may seem hard to believe, it becomes more understandable when one realizes CAI has only launched the following 5 campaigns.
- Infact Formula Campaign and Nestle Boycott: this campaign helped launch CAI. CAI chose to lead a nation-wide boycott of Nestle in the US, which was the first successful international boycott of a transnational corporation. This lead to the creation of the first ever UN Code of Marketing which resulted in industry wide change.
- Nuclear Weaponmakers Campaign: this campaign targeted General Electric for its leading role in the nuclear weapons industry. CAI launched a GE boycott in 1986, releasing an Academy Award winning documentary titled “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment,” which highlighted GE’s abuses. CAI effectively got GE to leave the nuclear weapons business in 1993 under enormous public and financial pressure.
- Challenge Big Tobacco: In 1993, CAI chose to tackle the tobacco industry, launching a campaign that mobilized millions of people in corporate boycotts that exposed the “falsehoods behind‘family friendly’ images of the tobacco-corporation-owned brands Kraft and Nabisco” pressuring tobacco giants to spin off these brands. CAI was also able to get corporations to retire youth-targeted icons such as Joe Camel and Marlboro Man. CAI’s campaign led to the passage of the first ever public health and corporate accountability treaty, The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). CAI continues to work with partners and allies around the world to reduce tobacco industry influence and implement the FCTC.
- Challenge Corporate Control of Water Campaign: Launched in 2004, this campaign has focused on protecting communities’ rights to water, both at home and abroad. CAI is working to protect community water supplies from corporate interests. They have been instrumental in preventing Public- Private Partnerships (partnerships between governments and private corporations) of water supplies in cities around the world. These partnerships often result in poorer water access and increased rates for citizens. CAI continues to challenge the World Bank’s role in water privatization around the world and highlight the negative effects water privatization can have.
- Challenge Corporate Abuse of Our Food Campaign: This is the newest of CAI’s campaigns and has focused on highlighting the abusive nature of McDonald’s and the vast influence it has in order to encourage a change in the food industry. Just within my time at CAI, I have witnessed small campaign successes. Through an organized effort by the campaign, they were able to pressure a hospital in Atlanta to not renew their contract with McDonalds. Small successes such as these are what lead to successful campaign outcomes in the long run.
CAI’s success lies partly in the fact that for the majority of its existence, it has been operating as a one-campaign organization. Choosing a campaign was often an extensive operation that took into account both CAI’s members’ preferences on which abuse to tackle (because it is a membership-powered organization), as well as the abilities of the organizers to create an effective multi-year plan to tackle the abuse. Within these plans, CAI’s measure of success was not, and is still not, the prevention of all human rights abuses. Instead, CAI has historically launched targeted, long-term campaigns to change corporate behavior by focusing all their attention on shifting the action of an industry leader. Nonetheless, even with such specific organizational focus, success was still an uphill battle marred by difficulties, setbacks, and initial failures. It is CAI’s commitment to launching campaigns that are very long-term, that allows them to accomplish small-scale successes that eventually lead to big-scale change in corporate behavior.
According to Miranda, a campaign organizer at CAI, CAI’s success also lies in the fact that they approach corporate change from an outside perspective. Putting external pressure on corporations is key in order to encourage them to shift their harmful behavior and put human lives over corporate profits. A successful example that Miranda brought up was the campaign that founded CAI—the campaign to end dangerous and exploitative infant formula marketing practices in the global south. CAI’s actions were vital in helping pass the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in 1981.
Nonetheless, success is never all encompassing. Even within success there is room for failure. As Miranda pointed out, although CAI was able to accomplish industry- wide change and introduce new codes on marketing with their baby formula campaign, regulation is only as strong as its enforcement. Though the formula campaign would be defined as successful, infant formula is still being sold through exploitative practices. That is why it is important to apply continued pressure, in order to ensure enforcement mechanisms are carried through and the reason why success can be understood as not just outcome, but process too.
Success and failure are two sides of the same coin, especially in the sphere where business and human rights intersect. Successful campaigns are often marred by failures, just as failed campaigns may be filled with successful actions. In the end, small successes have massive impacts on the communities they help. And failure is just a reason to try harder and plan better in a world where lives depend on corporate change. This seems to be the outlook Corporate Accountability International has adopted in its 40 plus years of operation, and is one that I believe helps the organization be as “successful” as it is.
Jack Stanovsek – Changing Corporate Culture
By Jack Stanovsek
“I think very recently, corporations and companies across India are sitting up and becoming more cognizant of civil society’s demands and obligations.” Shireen rocks back in her chair and pauses for a moment, furrowing her brow while she formulates responses to my questions. She is my direct supervisor here at Praxis and today, she acts as my interview subject as we discuss our work in our office’s conference room in South Delhi. Shireen grasps her lime-green coffee mug and takes a small sip of the spiced chai I made for the two of us, an office tradition I’ve grown accustomed to as an incentive to facilitate conversation.
This informal interview originally sought to provide tangible cases of successful and unsuccessful corporate change resulting from the work done at Praxis. When I mentioned the prompt to Shireen in passing three days ago, I detected apprehension in her response. Sitting in our conference room today, she explains this apprehension by refuting the premise of the question itself. “I don’t think we can definitively say that our work contributes directly to corporate change through concrete cases where we stopped some company from committing human rights violations or environmental degradation,” she begins, “and this is for a variety of reasons. First, the business environment in India is entirely different from that of America. There’s also the contemporary nature of corporate accountability, with legislation only recently enacted to highlight the responsibilities companies have when operating in India. And then there’s the issue of deeply embedded, clandestine corruption and collusion between the government and the private sector.”
I take a break from indecipherably scribbling in my notebook and ask more directly, “But from what you’ve seen over the years, Shireen, what effects have come out of Praxis’ work then?” Shireen sets down her empty mug and begins her explanation. “Well what we’ve seen, even over the past ten or twelve months, are more and more companies taking recognition of our objectives as a member of India’s civil society towards corporate social responsibility. Companies are increasingly reaching out to us to highlight the most effective uses for their corporate social responsibility expenditures. Some companies, like ICICI Bank and Cairn India, even reach out to us first for help in guiding them in their expenditures.” As our conversation continues, Shireen’s repudiation of the original prompt is increasingly persuasive, and it highlights India’s unique relationship between business and human rights. Praxis’ work doesn’t directly compel companies to change but rather feeds into a confluence of circumstances that are changing the conversation around how companies ought to act.
As an organisation located outside of America, Praxis’ work deals with several distinctly Indian factors that are simply not as pronounced in the United States. The NGOs and firms advancing business and human rights in the United States operate in a different legislative, judicial, socio-economic and cultural context. While corporate change is by no means easy under any circumstances, one could argue that change is easier in America in comparison to India. The continuous, rampant human rights violations endemic across India’s development sector are, after all, state sponsored. Punishment enacted by the Indian courts on corporations lack an enforcement mechanism—their decisions are often blatantly ignored. Corruption, facilitated by the private sector, is deeply embedded in the federal and state governments which then creates difficulty in ascribing corporate accountability. All of this materialises in a culture throughout India’s private sector that is innately opposed to change. America’s climate isn’t necessarily optimal, yet the challenges appear less severe under the guise of comparison.
Shireen explained that the recent international norms and legislation have had profound impacts on human rights awareness in India’s business sector. Borrowing partly from the international regime of human rights, the Indian government drafted its National Voluntary Guidelines on the Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business, a set of nine principles that set standards of responsible practice that businesses within India should aspire to. While these progressive norms are certainly promising, Shireen stressed that they are still new and need time to take full effect. So by setting the paucity of direct corporate change in India briefly aside, we find that Praxis’ work attempts to dishevel the current culture across the nation’s private sector that is opposed to change. We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of companies disclosing their policies on certain standards required under Indian legislation in the past three years. While the companies’ policies may miss the target on fully upholding the obligations placed before them, the principle of increased disclosure is a promising result that can act as a foundation for future endeavours in business and human rights. Praxis’ work then ties into a wider transformation of the private sector’s obligations and responsibilities, attempting through cooperative and collaboration to reverse businesses’ opposition to change.
This cultural shift ultimately ties into Professor John Ruggie’s intentions enshrined in the United Nations Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and not by mere coincidence. Given traditional mechanisms of change—namely litigation and public condemnation—have continually failed to compel companies to uphold their ethical obligations in India, civil society members are abandoning these methods and exploring new pathways to fully protect communities’ rights. Praxis increasingly believes that close communication with companies on ethical practice will, over time, ultimately lead to corporate change. This tactic certainly comes at a high price—the immediate human rights violations rampant across the Indian business sector cannot wait for a gradual cultural shift with no guarantee of success. Yet according to Shireen, the Indian business sector has never been more receptive to these issue than it is today. It is difficult to delineate to what extent this effect is attributable to Praxis given the legislation recently introduced by the government. Regardless, this tactic of focusing on businesses’ cultural transformation over the long term emerges as a pragmatic and salient method to prime companies to change.
Maura Smyles – Reputation and Relationships
By Maura Smyles
“Our practice certainly has a bent toward promoting respect for human rights,” explained an attorney from Foley Hoag’s CSR practice when I asked about how she understands her role as both a lawyer representing the interests of her corporate clients and an advocate for human rights. “We are not pure compliance lawyers. If you look at our backgrounds, you can see we have a real commitment to addressing these issues. Many of us write and speak on topics in the field of business and human rights, so there’s an element of self-selection on the part of our clients.”
In an effort to understand how corporate change in the field of human rights can be brought about most effectively, I’ve been investigating the extent to which the attorneys in the CSR practice at Foley Hoag attempt to steer their clients toward greater respect for human rights. Where is the balance between advancing the interests of the corporate client and maintaining one’s own values as a human rights activist? What opportunities exist for challenging the human rights policies of a corporation, while at the same time billing the corporation for that work? What factors allow these efforts to be successful, and what limitations do attorneys in the practice experience that reduce their ability to effect corporate change?
My curiosity about these questions brought me to speak with one of the attorneys in Foley Hoag’s CSR practice. On a Friday afternoon, I settled into a chair across from her desk and began to pick her brain about the many cases she has worked on throughout her years in this position. Of course I can’t discuss the details of particular cases or clients due to confidentiality requirements, but the themes and trends that emerged during our conversation are valuable nonetheless.
The first thing the attorney stressed that afternoon is that clients come to her with a wide range of legal questions, so the work she does for them varies on a case to case basis. Sometimes clients approach with simple compliance questions and do not seem interested in going above and beyond their legal obligations in order to improve their human rights impacts. In these cases, she helps them to meet the minimum standards and hopes that along the way she can build a relationship that will allow her to explain why the standards are important as well as why compliance isn’t enough, why more actions should be taken. Sometimes this works, other times it doesn’t. However, when companies approach her with a deeper commitment to improving their human rights impact, one that exceeds simple compliance, this is when she has the opportunity to do industry-leading work. These are the corporations she describes as self-selecting when they choose the CSR practice at Foley Hoag over other more traditional compliance-oriented attorneys.
But what makes companies self-select? Does a CEO just wake up one day, decide she wants to be more socially responsible, and then call an attorney in the CSR practice? Is there a way to influence companies who fall into the first group, those who begrudgingly take human rights actions only because the law requires it, to switch to the progressive, industry-leading group?
I asked the attorney seated across from me her thoughts, and without much hesitation she said, “Reputational exposure.” From her experience, a perception of reputational exposure is the most important factor that encourages companies to go above and beyond the strict compliance approach. This awareness comes about in different ways: a company with a history of media smear campaigns waged against it has finally learned its lesson and hopes to avoid further reputational damage; a client sees an opportunity to improve its public image by promoting its products as sustainably-produced and expects that such an image improvement will result in greater sales; a corporation looking to set up a factory near indigenous land knows that the local tribe is well-connected with other tribes on the continent, and a poor relationship with the local group would risk tainting its reputation among the whole network, possibly preventing future developments from being approved. In these cases, the clients care about more than their legal obligations. They care about the way their human rights record will be understood by the masses, including consumers, media outlets, and local stakeholders.
But not all clients have a significant degree of reputational exposure, especially smaller companies that aren’t household names and suppliers that interact with businesses rather than individual consumers. Sure, everyone can be affected by a poor reputation, but not all actors are as susceptible as others. And some clients who do have a high degree of reputational exposure do not realize how great their risk is. Are there other ways that the attorneys in the CSR practice work to effect corporate change?
Relationships seem to be another key to success, something I realized the very first time I sat in on a client call. “These sorts of conversations aren’t always this productive,” noted another attorney from the CSR practice after speaking to a consultant with whom she has worked for years. “If I had tried to have the same conversation with someone with whom I didn’t have a close working relationship, it probably would have gone much differently.” But given their history, the consultant trusted her and was comfortable sharing his own concerns and reservations about company policies and personnel. These were the kind of insights the attorney needed in order to provide oversight of the company and ensure it was meeting its CSR commitments.
Once a strong professional relationship has developed, the point of contact within a corporate client is often much more likely to listen to suggestions about human rights policy changes, take them seriously, and pass them up the chain of command. This is a lesson that several attorneys in the CSR practice have shared with me, and one that is continually reinforced when I listen to client calls. After all, corporations are made up of individual people, so the first step to corporate change might just be changing the mind of a single person.
Sydney Smith – The Ups and Downs of a Nonprofit
By Sydney Smith
Corporate Accountability International has existed since the 1980s and has made a tremendous impact in the fight against corporate abuses. Its approach is to harnesses the power of individuals and communities. It utilizes the power of people to take stands and voice demands against corporate abuses all over the world. However, there is no denying that when working for a nonprofit organization, the road to change will be complicated, long and bumpy. Despite these bumpy roads, CAI has been successful in tactfully implementing campaigns and fighting to prevent corporate abuse.
Katie, an employee who has been with the organization for over two years, spoke to some of the successes and struggles that CAI has faced in its history of fighting corporate abuses. To start off, she named the Nestle boycott as CAI’s first major success.
“Our founding success came in the 1980s, when Nestlé agreed to sweeping reforms in its infant formula marketing practices,” she said. CAI was called Infact at the time (the Infant Formula Action Coalition). In 1977, Corporate Accountability International (then Infact) launched the historic Nestlé Boycott. The boycott was the first to successfully compel a major corporation to listen to the global public and commit to major changes in its practices.
To provide some context, Nestlé had been aggressively marketing breast milk substitutes to mothers in the Global South as the most nutritious choice for their babies. These women could scant afford the formula powder and, when they could, they lacked access to clean water to mix it with. Many mothers watered down the formula in order to make it last, leading to widespread infant death from malnutrition and water-borne illness. Katie continued to explain what made the Nestle campaign such a success, “Working with allies around the world, we organized a 10-nation boycott of Nestlé products.” In 1984, the campaign spurred by CAI helped compel the World Health Organization to advance a global code of conduct on marketing of breast-milk substitutes, which has had the potential to save millions of infants’ lives.
The phrase “working with allies around the world” really stood out to me. It was responsible for CAI’s founding success. It illustrated the strong effect that partnering with other allies can have on achieving a specific goal. Because CAI worked with nonprofits, communities, and individuals all over the world, they were able to successfully carry out the Nestle boycott and save lives.
Katie does not explain any of CAI’s attempts of corporate change as a “failure,” but rather, as works in progress. In this context, we mainly discussed CAI’s food campaign. Corporate Accountability International’s Value [the] Meal campaign holds the fast food industry accountable for a range of abuses that are making children sick and damaging the environment. The campaign is targeting McDonald’s—demanding that it no longer advertise its notoriously unhealthy food to children.
Katie expressed frustration with the slow progress the food industry has made despite shifts in public sentiment towards the fast food and the junk food industries. She described the shift in public sentiment following documentaries, such as Food Inc. “Fast food corporations like McDonald’s continue to produce and market the kinds of junk food that make people sick and contribute to skyrocketing rates of diet-related disease. One particular example of non-responsiveness is the fact that, to date, McDonald’s continues to market to children, in spite of the thousands of health professionals, teachers, parents and kids who have demanded the corporation stop its kid-targeted marketing (Happy Meals are one example).”
Katie is right. Although the general public is aware of the health-related consequences of eating fast food, especially in children, the rate of progress and corporate action lags behind.
But the current non-responsiveness doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. Katie continued by saying she would love to see McDonald’s end its kid-targeted marketing as soon as possible. “We saw the tobacco industry digging in its heels before it eventually did decide to retire Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, which were primary tools it used to market cigarettes to children. Given current trends, it seems more than likely that we will see more significant changes within the fast food industry, but it may take a few more years.”
So in the end, CAI sees roadblocks in fighting for corporate responsibility not as failure, but as part of a longer journey. Sometimes meeting demands against corporate abuse only take a few attempts and is accomplished relatively quickly. However, making change takes time and multiple attempts—some of which may not be immediately successful. It is a matter of learning from past failures. and always trying again.
Sydney Speizman – Converging Definitions of Success
By Sydney Speizman
Of all the acronyms I learned at Accountability Counsel, IFTPAE is the one that will stick with me the most. IFTPAE, which stands for independence, fairness, transparency, professionalism, accessibility, and effectiveness, are the core principles motivating Accountability Counsel’s advocacy to improve the development finance accountability system. In thinking about the definition of success that runs through all facets of the organization’s operations, IFTPAE jumps out as the common thread.
The first major aspect of Accountability Counsel’s work is assisting communities harmed by internationally-financed development projects through accountability offices’ complaints process. The strategic support team that works with these cases takes a grassroots approach, emphasizing the goals of the community filing the complaint. As such, the definition of success in Accountability Counsel’s communities program is the outcome desired by the people affected. In some cases, communities may generally be in favor of the project but feel that specific aspects or implementation practices are violating their rights. In other cases, communities may feel that there is no way for the project to go forward without causing substantial harm. Because the motivation for submitting a complaint varies, the outcome that would be considered a success is different for every case. Regardless of the ideal outcome, none of the complaints supported by Accountability Counsel’s team of attorneys can be successful if the accountability offices involved do not follow IFTPAE to some degree.
The most striking example of a successful case that Accountability Counsel has worked on is a complaint from communities in Oaxaca, Mexico regarding a hydroelectric project supported by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The communities feared that the project would contaminate their drinking waters and fishing areas, as well as pose a threat to the integrity of an existing dam in the area. Following the submission of a complaint, four affected communities and the company implementing the project engaged in a successful dialogue process facilitated through OPIC’s accountability office. The parties reached an agreement to halt project construction and give community members the ability to decide the future of alternate project designs. After reviewing proposed alternatives, three of the four communities rejected both the original and alternate options. The company respected the decision of the communities and suspended the hydroelectric project. This historic resolution marks the first time that communities’ demands in a dispute resolution process facilitated by an accountability office were completely respected.
Although very few cases reach this level of success, the outcome of the hydroelectric project in Oaxaca provides an example of how the accountability system can and should operate—by following the principles of IFTPAE. In addition, the case demonstrates that accountability offices can be an effective mechanism for protecting human and environmental rights and elevating the voices of those who will be affected, either positively or negatively, by development projects. In addition to utilizing accountability offices, Accountability Counsel works to increase IFTPAE in the development finance accountability system through both policy advocacy and a resources program. My main project this summer falls at the intersection of these two functions.
In order to monitor the state of the accountability system, Accountability Counsel created and maintains a database of all of the complaints ever submitted to an accountability office. Since the first complaint was filed at the World Bank Inspection Panel in 1994, about 800 cases have gone through the accountability system. For my project, I had the opportunity to analyze these cases and write a data report breaking down the accountability system regionally. Viewing the accountability system from a macro, quantitative perspective was an interesting contrast to the very personal, case-by-case level of the strategic support team’s work. Because there is no way to know or record what the communities’ desired outcomes were for all 800 complaints, the measure of success that I used for the accountability system at large was different than the definition of success applied to Accountability Counsel’s strategic support cases. In my analysis, a case was considered to have achieved a result—the closest proxy to a success in the quantitative analysis—if a settlement was reached in a dispute resolution between the company and the affected communities or if the financial institution published a compliance report about whether it adhered to its social and environmental policies in supporting the project. The obvious shortcoming in using this definition as a measure of success is that it does not consider the community members’ perspective. However, as an advocacy tool, providing pure statistics on case progress through the complaints process is effective because it offers less opportunity for the findings to be disregarded as biased.
When I first read that the prompt for this post was about the organization’s definition of success, I struggled to find the convergence of the grassroots meaning utilized by the strategic support team and the de-personalized classification underlying the analysis I was conducting. While the two definitions seem almost contradictory on the surface level, I realized that the principles of independence, fairness, transparency, professionalism, accessibility, and effectiveness are the unifying factors. If the outcome of one of Accountability Counsel’s cases is not what the community hoped, the organization hones in on any structural barriers that prevented the ideal result and turns them into policy advocacy points. Similarly, if the statistics from the database reveal that there are any shortcomings in the accountability system, they can be leveraged to promote change. IFTPAE is at the heart of this advocacy regardless of which side it stems from, and these values are what make accountability offices a meaningful tool for communities to protect their human and environmental rights and for financial institutions to uphold their policies.
Frank Jiang – Building Relationships in the Business World
by Frank Jiang
“Sometimes,” Peter says, leaning forward in his chair, “companies get wake-up calls.”
And on the scale of wake-up calls, this was as loud as they come. After expediting the construction of a mine, a company was faced with strong pushback from the local community. With profits on one side, and social and environmental concerns on the other, neither side was willing to budge. But then the protests turned violent, and a community member was killed by mine-hired security.
Peter, my mentor, worked with this client. “The company vowed to do better,” he says. “For their next mine construction, they paid close attention to social details. They even planned to prepare for five to seven years before starting construction.
“For stakeholder engagement, they brought BSR on board, and over the next year, we worked with the local communities. We talked about jobs, how the mine would be set up, and how the company would help when the mine eventually closed. Unlike the previous time, there was a lot of community involvement, and more importantly, a lot of community support.”
Peter’s eyes refocus on his computer, rereading the project outcomes. “But suddenly,” he says, “the project stopped. The price of commodities fell, and the company decided there wasn’t a reason to build the mine anymore. So after a full year of work, they canceled the project. That was maybe my most frustrating experience here. We got some internal expertise, but we didn’t have the tangible impact we thought we’d have.”
In my previous post, I wrote about BSR’s intentionality—structuring itself as a supportive business advisor and speaking the corporate language, all to improve social outcomes. But once again, good intentions seemed to fall prey to the “business case,” a term I’d heard throughout my weeks at BSR. This time, it was the loss of financial incentives over the course of a long-term project. But if this—the subordination of human rights to the business case—is a common experience, why not pressure businesses rather than help? Is business advising still an effective role?
For Peter, the answer remains an unequivocal yes. “A lot of our impact is intangible,” he says. “Beyond the recommendations, it is important that someone keeps the conversation going, that someone helps raise awareness. Without that, we can’t get anything done.”
This is the part to BSR that is unique—it doesn’t just serve as a consulting firm. Most clients are also part of BSR’s membership network, able to form cross-sector working groups with other members, and able to be a part of long-term conversations and collaborations.
“After being with us for a while,” Peter says, “that’s when you see change happen. Businesses take a second look at our solutions. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) personnel move between companies, and bring more businesses on board. Building these relationships,” Peter emphasizes, “is some of the most important work we do.”
This was an interesting thought for me to consider, but it makes sense. While companies, at an organizational level, have to focus on the business case, individuals are still the ones making decisions. And by forming personal relationships with those individuals, changing their priorities gradually starts to shift organizational priorities too.
To better understand BSR’s work in building relationships, I decided to speak with Racheal Meiers, the former director of BSR’s HERproject. HERproject, an initiative focused on women’s empowerment in the developing world, is a particularly unique service offering at BSR.
“BSR is good at building the foundation for collaborations,” Racheal explains. “We try to maintain and strengthen those collaborations until they are capable of self-perpetuating, and then we spin them off. But with HERproject, we realized BSR was essential in keeping the ecosystem together.”
HERproject’s ecosystem is composed of NGOs, companies, and their supply chains. Essentially, when a company pays to join HERproject, it identifies factories within its supply chain that could be improved. BSR then contacts local NGO partners, who start working with employed women at those factories. While the initiative originally focused on health outcomes, it is now expanding into financial literacy and workplace equality, as HERproject has grown to include over 600 factories worldwide.
“BSR, in this role, works as a guarantor,” Racheal explains. “We understand the work our NGO partners can do, we have the expertise to identify problems, and we can ensure standardization between countries. Without BSR, it would be far more difficult for this program to work.”
There’s a subtle undertone to the reason for BSR’s necessity, though: a certain level of mistrust exists between companies and NGOs. Companies often skeptically view local NGOs as problem causers rather than problem solvers. However, through BSR’s business advising expertise, HERproject is designed sensitively. And because many businesses have pre-existing relationships with and trust in BSR, they are more willing to join the initiative.
That’s not to say there aren’t risks. “Companies,” Racheal says, “can still leave if the business case changes. And companies have in the past. But oftentimes, those same companies come back later—most companies who join understand the importance of strengthening existing relationships with core factories and NGOs, and they’re looking for a long-term arrangement anyway.” This last thought was one that I’d also observed independently; when speaking with CSR personnel at apparel companies, most had discussed how their supply chains had recently consolidated, often from thousands of factories to a few hundred, in an attempt to source from only the most socially responsible.
This trend has also helped me grasp, in a more tangible way, the value of relationships. After all, when the importance of corporate social responsibility is often conveyed to businesses by damaging their reputations, it is easy to understand why this space is marked by tension and mistrust. But just like those star factories that companies are consolidating toward, BSR, through years of building positive relationships, is also uniquely positioned to restore trust, provide knowledge, and keep progress moving forward.
In my last letter home, I asked whether business advisors like BSR played an effective role. My experiences here, however, have answered a perhaps more important and precise question—whether business advisors play a necessary role. And, like Peter, my response is an unequivocal yes.
Jack Stanovsek – Intentions and Pragmatism
By Jack Stanovsek
“But Rohan, as a member of India’s civil society at the forefront of responsible financing, I feel that we can no longer allow the financial sector the option of acting ethically. For too long, we’ve used this submissive language that unintentionally permits alternative options to ethical practice.” Pradeep’s explanation hung around in the air while the four of us brainstormed recommendations to strengthen Rohan’s work.
Pradeep, Rohan, Reena and I are sitting in Praxis’ conference room in South Delhi, meeting late in the afternoon to review our work over the past month. Our collective reports are an affirmative evaluation of responsible financing, an initiative that seeks to encourage and inculcate social responsibility in India’s financial sector by going beyond the two percent corporate social responsibility (CSR) required by the Indian government from its wealthiest companies. As a component of responsible financing, Rohan authored a document arguing the ethical merits of responsible financing. Sitting in the fading sunlight of a scorching July afternoon, we snacked on a few samosas while considering Pradeep’s argument.
Essentially, Pradeep thought that the way we wrote about these issues inherently created choices between responsible financing and irresponsible financing. According to Pradeep, we must mitigate this by instructing the financial sector that the only way forward if they are to progress into the future is to act ethically. Considering the consequences of such action, Rohan backed his original assessment into the argument. “But Pradeep,” he began, “if we take away the financial sector’s agency in choosing how they operate and constrain their operations to ethical practice, is it really ethical? In order for them to act ethically don’t they need to possess the agency to choose the high road over the low?” Before Rohan could explain further, we were interrupted by Praxis’ deputy director who needed our participation in an organisation-wide meeting.
While the topic was shelved for later discussion, this conversation at the intersection of ethics, pragmatism, idealism and change emerged continuously throughout my placement at Praxis and underscored my experience as a pathways intern. The following are five insights that I’ve discovered about business and human rights through the Pathways of Change program.
Intentions Matter. Tying directly into the conversation between Pradeep and Rohan, corporations’ intentions matter when advocating for change. Pradeep’s vision of India’s financial sector having only one option, that of ethical practice, is certainly desirable, yet I would argue that it is in no way ethical nor even attainable. While methods can be deployed to deter unethical practice and to realign those corporations that do act unethically, it is impossible to completely strip corporations, or any organisation for that matter, of their agency in choosing the way in which they operate. Thus, a situation where companies are only given one option to act ethically is somewhat of an elusive holy grail. Additionally, the only way to measure true adherence to ethical standards by these companies is to allow them options between encouraged ethical practice and unethical practice.
Determining intentions is then important because of the options companies are innately ascribed. Take, for example, one the most common reasons companies may act ethically—reputation building and brand protection. While a business may comply with human rights in order to protect their brand’s image, what happens when the cost of compliance or the pay-out of benefits outweigh reputational damage? Unfortunately, the rational choice for these businesses would be to renege on their ethical responsibilities. Opportunism is a double-edged sword, where the financial incentives dictating a company’s ethical actions can just as easily motivate unethical action when human rights and profit fail to align with one another. It is then crucial that we as civil society members ensure corporations are acting ethically for the sake of upholding human rights so that they continue to do so when their businesses’ interests conflict with their moral obligations.
Old Methods Aren’t Necessarily the Most Pragmatic. Business and human rights only recently established an identity for itself over the past decade. While human rights violations caused by businesses are certainly not a new phenomenon, the methods of dealing with them are. During the orientation to the pathways program, all interns read case studies on the difficulty in litigating multinational corporations for human rights abuses; indeed, there were no clear success stories to draw upon. While domestic litigation shows a nominal improvement in protecting human rights, as an intern in India I’ve seen that our organisation simply cannot rely on the courts to mitigate the egregious violations rampant across the country. Though the courts have the authority to decide on these cases, they lack the power to enforce the regulations and punishments that deter and mitigate rights abuses.
As a field, business and human rights is increasingly exploring alternative, innovative approaches to reach more desirable outcomes. At Praxis, this means cooperating with corporations to highlight areas of improvement. Partnership, coordination and mutual respect are mechanisms to change the culture of how corporations operate, instilling a respect for human rights at the core of their company alongside traditional business objectives. While time is needed to fully measure the effectiveness of this solution, the results are certainly promising and can prove to be more salient than the largely ineffective punishments enacted by the courts.
Businesses can be Adversaries and Advocates of Human Rights. As a student at Duke studying ethics, I came into this program with an assumption that businesses and human rights could not be reconciled and that the only way to ensure human rights were respected by businesses were through legal obligations. Based on the sheer amount of human rights violations committed by businesses to increase profit, I was sceptical of their contribution to developing a protective framework for human rights. To be sure, businesses around the world have deplorable records in their handling of human rights. Yet after this internship at Praxis, I’ve inevitably reached the conclusion that businesses must be included in the conversation surrounding human rights to create a protective framework that is agreeable by all stakeholders.
Furthermore, there is actually a great amount of utility in treating the business community as advocates of human rights. The continued conversation between Praxis and India’s business community shows that these companies are actually receptive to the recommendations conceived by civil society members. Yes, we should always view their involvement with a healthy dose of scepticism. At the same time, treating businesses as partners in human rights protection may lead to a stronger and more robust protective framework.
International Norms Set the Tone for the Global Community. International standards are sometimes scrutinised for their applied practicality, especially when they are not legally binding agreements. While the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are non-binding, I would argue that the impact of these norms and several other standards drawn out along similar lines have a discursive rather than a direct impact.
In India’s case, the release of the UNGPs led to a direct inquiry into the business and human rights regime. Ultimately, domestic norms and legislation seems to borrow from the UNGPs, at least in part. The language used in India’s National Voluntary Guidelines on the Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business (NVGs) mirrors that of the UNGPs. My colleagues at Praxis explain that their work is viewed as increasingly relevant with substantial legitimacy since the release of the UNGPs and the NVGs, observing how India’s civil society is expanding to account for these international standards. Though they are not legal obligations, these international standards are substantial in that their legitimacy dictates the tone in which other states may treat these issues domestically.
Business and Human Rights are in a Constant State of Progress. In Maura’s first post, she discussed how Professor John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, discussed the UNGPs at an event she attended. Defining this period as, “the end of the beginning,” Ruggie acknowledged the work ahead of us if we are to make respect for human rights commonplace within business. My experience as a pathways intern fully accepts his argument without qualification.
We live in a period of unprecedented globalisation, and with this come human rights violations. Yet concurrently, there exists a growing global conscience about our responsibilities to those impacted adversely by globalisation, those that feel left out of the equation that are either disadvantaged by this growth or feel that they aren’t being taken along for the ride. The core tenets of business and human rights enshrined in the three pillars of the UNGPs lay a solid ethical foundation for the obligations of both businesses and the states they operate within. This beginning, of setting the agenda, is certainly nearing its end. Rolling out this new rights regime globally is the next stage for business and human rights, with its future progress still left largely uncharted. It is our job as advocates of business and human right to ensure that these principles are pushed into reality.
Maura Smyles – Three Lessons Learned about What to Learn
By Maura Smyles
While our fellow Blue Devils prepare for the upcoming consulting recruitment season or consider their return offers from banks and Fortune 500 companies, those of us with our hearts set on careers in the human rights field are more or less left to fend for ourselves. Or at least that’s how I feel.
With no clear path to follow after graduation, I face countless unknowns about my future and how best to prepare for it during my time as an undergraduate. What makes for a meaningful career as a human rights activist? Would a law degree or a Master’s in Public Policy be more beneficial? Or rather, should I forgo advanced degrees and instead enter the workforce directly? In which sector—public, private, or non-profit—would my skills allow me to be most effective?
I certainly can’t say that all of these questions were answered through my experience as a Pathways of Change intern this summer, but I did gain valuable insights about the kinds of skills and experiences that will hopefully make me a better human rights activist. Although each person in the field of business and human rights surely offers his or her own unique strengths in the workplace, the following seem to be a few of the most important, according to my daily observations of how policy change is brought about in Washington as well as conversations I had with colleagues.
Whether I choose to focus my career on human rights abuses in the domestic or the international context, the ability to speak and write professionally in a variety of languages will surely serve me well. Before my internship at Foley Hoag, I was already keenly aware that language gaps pose challenges to community engagement efforts within the US, specifically when working with immigrant and refugee populations. MASTERY and SuWA, two programs housed at Kenan that partner with locally resettled refugee populations, can present challenges for me because I do not speak the first languages of any of the families who participate. Of course there are translators, but nearly every week there is a situation in which I desperately wish I could communicate directly with the newly arrived women and children who do not yet speak English.
Even when not working directly with communities, being able to work in a variety of languages seems almost to be a requirement for international legal work. In Foley Hoag’s Washington DC office, the majority of the employees speak Spanish. During the tour of the office on my first day of work, I was told that Spanish is the unofficial second language of the office. I later learned that this is in large part due to the firm’s international work, especially involving Latin American corporations and governments. I personally reviewed a couple documents in Spanish during my time at Foley, which reinforced within me a commitment to improving my fluency in the language.
In addition to Spanish, my colleagues noted that French would be incredibly relevant if I were working on international human rights issues because of its prominence in the UN. Further, Arabic would be an invaluable tool for conversing with refugee populations, something I desperately wished I could do while I was researching in Jordan last summer with a Kenan Bass Connections team. Ideally, I would be able to communicate with every community with which I interact professionally. Unfortunately, I only have 24 hours in a day, so I know that I will never learn to speak as many languages as I’d like to. That said, I should really do my best to learn as much of as many languages as I can.
2. Cross-sectoral Experience
As I discussed in previous posts, my work this summer revealed to me the critical role of cross-sectoral cooperation in addressing human rights abuses around the world. Legal and policy reform, no matter how drastic, cannot end systematic abuses of human rights without support from corporate actors and civil society organizations. For that reason, human rights activists who have backgrounds in multiple sectors are well-positioned to facilitate collaboration between these distinct groups and effect meaningful change.
Before this summer, I never would have imagined myself working in the corporate world because I didn’t see that as a space where human rights advocacy could take place. Now, however, I realize that the abuses of rights by corporations are much more complex than they first appear. This is not to say that they are any less tragic or that addressing them is any less urgent, but I have come to see a growing opportunity for human rights activists to productively push for change from within corporate spaces.
3. Connections in Washington
Although I hate to admit it, this is an important one. As was repeated to me by several people with whom I discussed my future career in the area of public policy, human rights, and international law, connections matter in Washington. Having contacts on the Hill or in federal agencies is a huge asset when seeking to effect policy change. In the bureaucratic web of policy proposals, points of contact within institutions provide opportunities to have a position truly heard and considered.
Even outside of governmental bodies, the ability to bring people together who stand on different sides of an issue can produce unprecedented results. I have seen first hand the way that a person who is well-connected in both the corporate world and in human rights groups can bridge the divide between the two and start meaningful dialogues.
Michelle Khalid – Five Lessons
By Michelle Khalid
1.) Network! Network! Network!
The first step to having a successful internship is getting to know your coworkers. There is a massive well of potential knowledge at your fingerprints. Learning about the path that your coworkers took to get where they are can provide you with both perspective and help on figuring out your own path to achieve what you want. It is always a bit daunting to reach out to the people you work with, during my own internship I was always worried about taking too much of someone’s time. But one very valuable lesson I learned was that most people would love to talk to you, you just have to take the first step and ask. Making connections is important, you never know whose story is going to inspire you or what conversation is going to get you’re your next internship or job.
2.) Non-profit work isn’t always pretty, but it is important
Growing up, non-profit work was always cloaked in an air of romanticism for me. Working for a non-profit meant you were saving the world, every action you took was directly correlated to helping the world become a better place. Though, my perspective of non-profit work had changed through the years, my internship at Corporate Accountability International really helped me strip away the last vestiges of romanticism. But in doing so, I learned how important non-profits are in effecting real-life change in our world. It is the everyday, seemingly mundane actions that allow organizations, such as CAI, to have the immense impact they do. I saw first hand the power grassroots organizing has. And though it was oftentimes difficult to hear “no’s” when asking people to take action, the massive amount of people who enthusiastically asked to help in anyway they could was always a great reward. In the end, I learned the small, everyday organizational office tasks are the building blocks for massive movements that utilize the power of the people and that’s really important to remember.
3.) Strategic organizing is important
There is a lot that goes into making a campaign to change corporate behavior successful. For Corporate Accountability International, that means a lot of planning. There are strategic plans outlined for every six months, one-year, three years, and five years. Every action is calculated and planned to have the most impact. My internship really taught me, that in order to be most effective, you have to be strategic. Taking uncoordinated actions that focus only on the short term rarely achieve the level of success you want them to. Instead, being strategic as an organization on what you ask of your employees, members, and strangers allows you to achieve the maximum results for your action. Being at CAI, I have really learned the importance of being strategic when trying to achieve any type of social change.
4.) Changing corporate behavior is not a one person job
To be successful in changing corporate behavior, you need a range of influences. Corporate Accountability International is committed to exerting external pressure on corporations. This is a really important step in helping address the human rights and environmental abuses corporations commit. However, from reading about all of the other work other Pathways students are doing, I have learned that this is also only one part of the process. External pressure is necessary to both inform the public of what is happening and to encourage corporations to change their behavior. But it is also important to work with and within corporations to help them change their actions when the outside pressure does build. Changing the landscape of how corporations operate is something that requires influence from many different avenues. Ending corporate abuse is not something that begins and ends with one actor, but is instead the result of varied and continuous actions by many different organizations and individuals. Utilizing the expertise, skills, and power of all different actors is how we effectively change abusive corporate behavior.
5.) Your experience is what you make of it
It is equally easy to have a really bad internship as a really good internship. What is comes down to is communication and your own outlook. If you feel like you are not getting enough out of your internship or your skills are not being fully utilized, tell your supervisor. At the same time, it is also important to keep an open mind. Not every single moment of the internship is going to be extremely captivating and the mundane tasks are an integral part of running a functional and efficient organization. It is important to learn to express your own needs in a respectful manner, while also understanding the needs of the organization you are working at. Staying positive and trying to make the most of your experience is how you achieve a good internship. Take the time to get to know your coworkers and your fellow interns (if you have them) and make sure to take advantage of the city you’re in!
Sydney Smith – What I’ve Learned
By Sydney Smith
If my time at Corporate Accountability International (CAI) taught me one thing, it is that that meaningful changes take time and are a product of the seemingly little actions of many individuals. CAI has proven time and time again that the small actions add up to make a real impact.
Tactics used in order to prevent a water privatization bill from passing in the state of Massachusetts illustrate this lesson. CAI fights tirelessly against water profiteers across the world. The privatization of public water prioritizes profits over water access. For the campaign to be successful required enormous time and the hard work of many individuals. Interns and staff members spent hours phone banking. This consisted of hundreds of phone calls to CAI members asking them to call their state representatives in Massachusetts and articulate their opposition to the water privatization bill, asking their officials to vote against it. At first, it may seem that calling a senator would have a minimal impact. It may feel like a tedious and insignificant action on an individual level. However, it is the combination of such actions that take a meaningful toll. It takes the voices of many people to send a message. The more voices and actions, the stronger the message.
To prevent the water bill from passing, other members of CAI (including myself) were working to draw media attention to the bill and to publicize our analysis of the bill. This included the media team reaching out to both local and large news sources in order to cover the bill. When issues are brought to the public’s attention, there is more opportunity for discussion and activism.
The combination of tactics and the work of individuals at CAI led to the failure of the water privatization bill in Massachusetts, marking a victory for CAI and community members. This was only possible because of the time and effort that each staff member and intern put in, along with the involvement and dedication of community members. One phone call would not have prevented the bill from passing, neither would have one news article, a press release or interview. It is the combination and culmination of individual actions that produces real change.
My work at CAI has proved that change comes with frustration and opposition. But when many voices are heard and many individuals are involved, social justice and positive change are absolutely possible. No social change has ever happened without individuals working behind the scenes, doing what may seem trivial at first. Having the heart to do what seems minor, individual choices to follow through on such actions – these can make the difference.
Sydney Speizman – Focusing on Mentorship
By Sydney Speizman
Before I started my summer internship search, one of my favorite professors advised me that one of the most important aspects to look for in early career opportunities is mentorship. In particular, he emphasized the importance of having women to look up to and learn from, both personally and professionally.
With this advice in mind, I started seriously reading the staff bios for all of the organizations that I was interested in applying to. Accountability Counsel immediately stood out. When I first read the profiles of the staff at AC, I remember growing increasingly awestruck by how interesting and impressive everyone’s backgrounds were. I was especially drawn to the number of brilliant women in leadership roles. More than wanting to learn from these people, I wanted to be like them.
Looking back at my internship experience, I could not be more grateful that I had mentorship at the forefront of my mind while exploring opportunities for this past summer. Internships are about so much more than gaining specific skills—they are about learning how to navigate the professional world, honing in on potential fields of interest, and discovering what work environments you thrive in. Although I have not completely figured out what I want to do after graduation, I have a much better idea of all of the possible ways to engage in the business and human rights field after talking with my coworkers about the paths that led them to Accountability Counsel. For example, gaining on the ground experience is a huge asset for someone looking for a career in international issues. Many of attorneys and law fellows spent time before law school working with nonprofits abroad, both through highly structured fellowships and by finding opportunities through persistent networking. While I had been aware of the traditional paths to working abroad (i.e. teaching English), I am now aware of less traditional paths, such as working with one of Accountability Counsel’s community partners, to working abroad. Even more important than specific job ideas, I walked away from the summer with a network of people that I can turn to for support and advice at any point in my career.
Another valuable benefit of an internship with strong mentorship is leaving the experience with increased confidence in your ability to contribute meaningfully to projects. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was given the opportunity to be the lead author and analyst for a data report that was presented at the Annual Conference of International Accountability Mechanisms. In many ways, I felt out of my league at the beginning of the project. I had only just begun to learn about international development’s accountability system, how could I already conduct a meaningful analysis of it? Despite my qualms, my supervisor made it clear that I was given the assignment because everyone trusted in my ability to do it well. While the project was frustrating at times, at the end, completing the data report was one of my proudest academic and professional accomplishments to date. Going forward, I am much more confident in my ability to tackle a project that I may not be qualified for because I know now that everyone learns as they go and that asking questions is not only acceptable but shows an eagerness to learn and is a great way to build relationships.
As recruiting season sweeps campus and all of my peers seem to have their career paths figured out, it is overwhelming to think of all of the different pathways that lay ahead. Part of me wants to spend time overseas and learn what it really means to do grassroots advocacy and community organizing around issues of business and human rights. Another part thinks that I should pursue private sector opportunities in order to experience business from the inside and see what impact human and environmental rights have on corporate decision making. No matter which direction I choose, I will be looking for somewhere with employee bios that make me feel as inspired as I felt reading Accountability Counsel’s staff page over half a year ago.
Frank Jiang – Lessons Learned
by Frank Jiang
When reflecting on my summer internship, I found that I could group the lessons I learned into five major themes:
- Business and human rights is a rapidly growing field
- The bulk of companies’ human rights risks lie in their supply chains
- The human rights landscape is starting to become all encompassing
- It is important to understand the business case
- Human rights should be considered as both a risk and an opportunity
Business and human rights is a rapidly growing field
In 2011, the UN adopted its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), in which it declared that businesses had the obligation to “know and show” their human rights risks.
While corporate social responsibility (CSR) work has been disparaged by some as “just a PR tool,” I’ve found that the UNGPs have given CSR, and human rights in particular, the legitimacy and teeth needed to inspire real change. Though merely a set of operational guidelines, the UNGPs have increasingly been viewed by businesses as a set of hard laws, especially as some states decide to enact actual legislation around it (e.g. the UK’s Modern Slavery Act). At BSR, the human rights pipeline has skyrocketed since 2011.
When I attended BSR’s Human Rights Working Group, I saw that theme again—many of the corporate members had only held their positions for a couple years at most, and several also described the CSR teams within their companies as growing. Regardless, the enthusiasm—to learn, to raise awareness, and to really improve business practices—was both infectious and real. Without a doubt, business and human rights is a rapidly expanding field, and there are many opportunities to get involved.
The bulk of companies’ human rights risks lie in their supply chains
Companies rarely commit direct human rights violations. Instead, the bulk of business and human rights work is done in their supply chains—where do they source from, and do those places have poor labor and employment practices?
Many companies have started dealing with this question proactively—within the agricultural and apparel industries, it’s not uncommon to see companies produce supply chain maps that document conditions at every factory they work with. This has particularly been true after Rana Plaza, a tragic sweatshop collapse in 2013.
At BSR, a lot of time was spent analyzing supply chains and their different forms. For example, in the automotive industry, there are very few factories that directly supply the major automaker brands—this is because there is a massive cost associated with creating factories that can assemble vehicles. Meanwhile, in the apparel industry, there are millions of potential suppliers—clothes can be sewn by almost anyone, anywhere.
Moving forward, it seems that supply chains are being consolidated. Companies understand that they can better impose new standards on suppliers if they source from fewer factories (i.e. increasing the company’s leverage over each factory). During a Human Rights Working Group meeting, I listened to one representative talk about her company’s progress in reducing their number of direct suppliers from four thousand to seven hundred, in just three years.
In any case, it is clear that supply chain knowledge is a necessary competency in business and human rights.
The human rights landscape is starting to become all encompassing
This theme is one that I’ve frequently observed—that all social issues are being redefined under the human rights umbrella. For example, labor rights and environmental issues are increasingly described in human rights language (e.g. environmental issues disproportionately impact the world’s poor, etc.).
It’s not incredibly clear why this is, but my guess is that social activists have long been frustrated by the “business case” wall that corporations put up. In essence, if it is not clear how social impact work can improve the bottom line, it is not important work for a business to do.
Human rights, however, is such a charged term that it often breaks through the wall; it carries moral weight. After all, a business can never say that it did not do all it could to avoid violating human rights. But while it is encouraging that other issues are being treated seriously as a result of this re-categorization, it does undermine, however slightly, the urgency of some of the more severe risks (e.g. human trafficking is now on an even playing field as employee health and safety).
Personally, it’ll be interesting to see how the human rights landscape—from synthesized rights to new rights like digital privacy—develops over time.
It is important to understand the business case
Though the previous theme identifies a trend, I’m skeptical as to its future success; rather, I still think it is important for those aspiring to work in human rights to understand the business case.
For most businesses that are not dealing with the aftereffects of a human rights-related scandal, corporate social responsibility is simply another stressor to deal with. As a result, understanding the full scope of issues a business is facing makes advocacy for improved human rights practices more convincing. For example, a supply chain specialist might observe inefficiencies, and partner socially responsible recommendations with cost reductions.
Beyond making human rights recommendations more convincing, understanding business strategy and operations may also improve the recommendations themselves. For example, a company’s major initiatives may cause new risks to emerge. Understanding how a client from the summer approached international expansion helped us anticipate which countries might be selected, and what new human rights risks might be introduced in the new settings.
In other words, I think it is important for those aspiring to work in business and human rights to first dedicate some time to familiarizing themselves with the business world. In terms of how best to achieve this, people at BSR recommended graduate degrees, generalist consulting firms, or business rotational programs as a few options to consider.
Human rights should be considered as both a risk and an opportunity
This idea is one I find particularly exciting. Namely, businesses should view improving human rights as an opportunity, rather than solely as a way to mitigate risk.
This can occur in two major ways. First, a company might be uniquely situated to address a human rights concern. For example, I worked with a shipping company this summer on human trafficking. The company was not directly related to the issue; however, its drivers would observe suspicious behavior when recipients opened their doors to receive packages. As a particularly egregious example, a driver might see a room full of likely trafficked women. So, while trafficking was not directly related to the company’s practices, they had the potential to significantly combat the issue.
Secondly, human rights can be viewed as a “shared value” that also benefits companies’ bottom lines. An example of this is a bank that teaches financial literacy classes; it is an area of company expertise, it helps low-income communities better manage their money, and it also broadens their potential customer base. In particular, I see “shared value” having applications in international development, especially for traditional multinational corporations trying to mitigate disruption risk from new companies in their established markets.
The important takeaway is that there are many ways for businesses to intersect with human rights. As a social impact consultant I recently spoke with said, “The future for corporations is building out a portfolio of socially responsible work: in risk mitigation, in corporate philanthropy, and in shared value.”