Rohan Preece is a consultant at Partners in Change (PiC), an organisation that attempts to partner with corporations as means of human rights, labour rights and environmental protection. Jack Stanovsek, Kenan’s Pathways of Change intern placed at Praxis, conducted this interview with Rohan in Praxis’ office in South Delhi. The following is a narrative of the interview, touching upon his early childhood before continuing on to his insights into business and human rights.
Rohan Preece grew up in Surry, a suburb of London, to a British father and Malaysian mother. He describes his upbringing as quite privileged, going through his primary and secondary schooling without too much to worry about. With his mother’s side of the family in Malaysia, he was able to occasionally visit the country which was a nice complement to his upbringing. While he quite enjoyed primary school, Rohan felt secondary school wasn’t quite as enjoyable as it was substantially challenging. His secondary school was located in the northern London suburb of Wimbledon, and as such he has fond memories of watching the tennis after class. As is customary in the British education system, he decided upon his speciality before university: theology and religious studies.
Rohan attended Cambridge University at a small college that specialised in theological studies. He absolutely loved his time at university, explaining the stark differences from his previous schooling because of the diversity on campus. As someone who attended private schooling, Rohan stated that a majority of his peers were conservative in their political ideologies. Entering a college where seventy percent of the student body were from state schools was then refreshing for him as many of them came from labour family upbringings which led to wonderful intellectual conversation. Rohan found that his closest friends from university ended up being these students, with most of them coming out of government schools. He found this quite refreshing as people weren’t as pretentious and they were more down to earth, contrasting against the ‘ivory towers’ archetype for most prestigious universities.
Rohan spent a great three years at university and thought of going into either foreign office, civil service, media or law after graduating. By the start of his final year of university, he ultimately decided to take a gap year because he felt he needed a bit of break. Yet as graduation approached, he was offered a very spontaneous opportunity to teach theology at Eton School—a private all boys boarding school in Kent. As a young graduate, Rohan thought it was a great opportunity with good pay and so he took the job with the stipulation that it only last for one term. He ended up extending terms continuously for another three years before leaving—this would be the longest job he ever held to this day.
Rohan came to business and human rights though a non-linear journey that required explaining his mindset leading into his final year of teaching at Eton. Teaching in an elite and elitist school that was Eton, Rohan came to question what he was actually doing? He explained that at the time, he thought he was putting icing on a cake but he wasn’t actually making the cake itself—providing exemplary education yet not questioning how this education came to be. He wanted to do something more constructive in life where it was needed. These kids at Eton had everything both materially and in other ways—Rohan wanted to work somewhere that actually was in desperate need of service from a skilled professional. He finished teaching at Eton in 2006 when he was 25 and he looked into doing volunteer work. He had travelled to India a couple of times as a tourist as his mother is part Tamil, so he eventually decided on volunteer work in India.
After interning in different grassroots NGOs and human rights advocacy networks, he got some exposure to the different discourses around India. He decided to focus on where his strengths and interested ultimately lie: education. After working extensively for an education NGO in India that sought to bring education through development, he returned to London to obtain a Master’s degree in education and international development in order to acquire professional skills required by the sector. After completing his Master’s degree, he worked for Save the Children in Delhi in 2010 on a short-term contract. After Save the Children, he joined Praxis with a wealth of experience in child’s rights organisation and more generally in education.
Working at Praxis, Rohan immediately noticed their approach in demanding social inclusion and participation from all stakeholders in formulating policies and recommendations. After working for them initially on a contract basis, he thought that he’d continue on with Praxis because he was beginning to broaden his horizons beyond a single constrained field. He got into corporate accountability and business and human rights firstly through education by using Praxis as a platform to enter the arena of corporate accountability.
Coming into this work, he wanted to focus all of his efforts on corporate accountability rather than spreading his work across a wide array of interests as he had done previously. Rohan explains that since his career path has been non-linear, it was originally difficult to ascertain where his work would lead him. He was aware of business’s role as a centre of power and privilege. He felt attracted to the argument of requiring the powerful in society to change the way they operate in order to improve conditions for the marginalised. Rohan explains that development work often focuses on the poor, and that this focus is absolutely appropriate—indeed communities need to be empowered from a bottom-up approach to instill change. Yet at the same time, he feels the object of change and the agents of change also needs to happen between people and amongst institutions who seem to be doing very well for themselves, but continue to structure their policies and practices to perpetuate poverty. For Rohan, there’s a lot of indifference amongst the powerful and privileged classes in India—perhaps there’s a lack of understanding of the conditions of what it is like to be poor. Yet, he thinks corporate India does need a wakeup call and it does need pressure. Unfortunately, this pressure isn’t coming from the government.
Rohan explains that instead, the burden of pressuring the powerful falls onto the shoulders of civil society members. The most tangible example he can think of this is that whilst Business Responsibility Reports are mandated by the government, they aren’t at all analysed by the government for any purpose and India’s civil society is left to deal with the aftermath. As he continued further into this field of corporate accountability, he saw this state-citizen paradigm of communication as these powerful private institutions enact additional strain upon the government of India. Rohan thinks they’re still in the process of understanding what these private entities are accountable for and who they’re accountable to—to be involved in this sector now is an opportunity to further explore these areas of inquiry. Yet he explains that the next generation will have it easier to work in corporate accountability because of the work his colleagues as Partners in Change and Praxis are doing today.
Yet Rohan still wants the government to do more. He thinks one thing that we have to constantly ask ourselves as people working in the space of civil society is the role we envision for the government and our expectations of the government. He is weary of taking up the responsibilities of the government because he still believes that ultimately, it is the government’s job to monitor, analyze and punish corporations where appropriate. So whilst corporates should be governed, we need to work effectively with the government so that it realises its responsibilities for both governing and holding corporations accountable for their actions.
Moving into Rohan actual current work on the ground, he explains that he has several different projects currently in the works. One project has been on apprentice training for an electronics company to develop policies that treats their workers fairly and ethically. Another project has been creating a reports template for a cement company’s corporate social responsibility program. His biggest project focuses on exploring the area of responsible financing, where one compels banks and financial institutions to ensure their financed companies behave ethically before providing funding for their various projects and activities. Rohan explains that they’ve done a pilot and he’s currently attempting to build a coalition around fair finance, scoring banks along international guidelines and then realising that these international guidelines are too ambitious for the Indian context. For him, there’s a need to customise India’s guidelines for responsible financing in terms of the NVGs.
The actual structure of Rohan’s day isn’t necessarily set in stone. Sometimes he has meetings for his various projects, but there isn’t much travel associated with his position. He also needs to call a number of different potential responsible financing coalition members and attend donor meetings for Oxfam. He feels there is less fieldwork for his particular position, but rather sees the field as meetings at banks and meetings with other civil society members.
Coming to the most rewarding area of his work, Rohan feels it would be where he has the opportunity to discuss a specific policy, in this case about apprentice workers, directly with someone from the company and then to do a training sessions to see the policy recommendation come into fruition. In sum, the most rewarding area of his work is seeing the human impacts of his work. Rohan thinks any time he gets to meet someone from a bank or a company, he sees it as an opportunity to build a relationship between someone in a corporate structure and his own civil society setting. He said that in a sense it’s always rewarding to produce or be part of the reports PiC has released in the past couple of years because of the impact they create from India’s business community.
Speaking of the challenges associated with corporate accountability, he feels that India’s complexity require those who work in civil society to be in a constant state of learning simply from the pure amount of information that is required for responsible decision making. For him, it is sometimes discouraging to see vast amount of work that exists and one wonder why even bother to begin. The challenge is simply to be an excellent, dedicated lifetime learner and to constantly have an appetite to learn.
When asked about how is work at Praxis and PiC has changed his views, Rohan paused for a minute before amending the question itself. He wouldn’t say changed his views, but rather shaped them. His work has shaped his views in terms of coming from somewhere else, where one might tend to judge Indian standards or practices by international standard and western standards, and realising how useless those measures truly are towards enacting change. Rohan feels that one might think that these are appropriate comparisons to make, between Western and India, and therefore that it would follow that others should be prepared to swallow those comparisons as wholly accurate. One insight his work in responsible financing has taught him is the importance of making something home grown. The more he works in this field, the more he finds that importing foreign standards are both rejected by the incumbent community and ineffective at inculcating change. For Rohan, at the end of the day India still isn’t as globalised or cosmopolitan as Western countries for very obvious reasons. To try to draw comparisons and impose regulations from the outside is therefore ineffective at best and extremely dangerous at worst.
Thinking of advice for students interested in business and human rights, Rohan says that ultimately, if one decides to work in business and human rights, one must never lose touch with why you’re in it and who you’re in it for. He feels that some people have very good imaginations, empathetic imaginations, for people in situations of disadvantage. Also there are the people that have grown up in those situations so they are able to relate on an even more intimate level. He finds it absolutely crucial to have those connections, whether they’re imaginary or actual, because ultimately if you’re working in this space of business and human rights, it’s about those people at the end of the day. So for Rohan, people need to be clear about who they’re working for and to do whatever it takes to get that clarity. Once one establishes this base, they should always return to it throughout their career to reinvigorate their passion for those on the receiving end.