Sarah Singh serves as the director of the Global Communities program at Accountability Counsel, an organization that a legal non-profit that employs community-driven and policy-level strategies to protect human rights and the environment. The organization supports communities harmed by internationally financed development projects to utilize accountability offices attached to development financial institutions. As Global Communities Director, Sarah leads the cases around the world where the organization partners with local groups to support community-led strategies seeking accountability. She has led cases in Colombia, Haiti, Liberia, Mongolia, Russia, and West Virginia, among others. Sarah is a graduate of UC Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall). This profile is based off an interview conducted by Carolina Isaza, a Pathways of Change summer intern at Accountability Counsel, in the organization’s San Francisco office.
Carolina Isaza: What is your educational background? What did your path to the business and human rights field look like?
Sarah Singh: I went to undergrad on the east coast at Brown and studied International Relations. I was able to kind of pick and choose which classes inspired and interested me, thanks to Brown’s lenient undergraduate curriculum requirements. I decided to go on a path that was focused on a human-rights, ground up, people-centered track, so I was able to take courses on international literature and sociology and anthropology. In the course of doing this I was introduced to a lot of human rights situations, not so much in the law aspect but more the concept and the consequences of human rights. I had discovered Earth Rights International as an undergrad so when I graduated, I went to do another semester with them post-grad. I had an ideal of wanting to work internationally on human rights issues, but it’s hard to break into that field so I started applying for any jobs related to any public interest issues that I was remotely similar to what I was interested in doing. I worked for a while doing Energy Policy work for California. This job made me realize that I did not want to do just purely policy work because it was very frustrating to me that it was so disconnected from communities. I went to law school at Berkeley, thinking that I would go on to litigate human rights cases for affected communities – the kind of communities that Accountability Counsel represents. I went to work at a smaller firm in San Francisco and clerked for a while before I discovered Accountability Counsel as it was first being created, and the timing worked out perfectly – exactly the kind of organization that I wanted to be working for was created here in San Francisco exactly at the time I needed it to.
CI: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
SS: I think the most rewarding part is that the model that we’re using is, at its best, very empowering for people, in a way that most traditional legal work is not, just in the way that it enables them to use their own voices and to grow a lot on a personal level. But then the challenging flip side of that is that the system lacks teeth. So when it’s not working, it just doesn’t work. There’s no appeal, there’s no power in it, it lacks a lot of the “sticks” that you would find in a more traditional legal setting.
CI: In what ways has your work at Accountability Counsel changed your views about business and human rights?
SS: I would say it’s made me a lot more aware of the extent to which I don’t really know and understand the internal motivations of businesses, and the things that they do. I can’t really explain to you why particular dispute resolution processes work and others don’t. We’re using voluntary processes, so the corporation has to agree to take part and then they have to sit there and come to a resolution and they are under no obligation to do that. So I think a lot of the time when people think about the business and human rights field, they either think about policy-making, such as corporations coming up with internal human rights policies and the sort, or they think about forcing corporations to do things through the court system. We’re not really in either of those two spaces. We’re talking about this other space where it really is about designing practical solutions not just policies that institutions are supposed to follow, but these institutions are under no obligation to do so. I certainly have theories about why certain dispute resolutions are fine and why others don’t work, but the point is that I don’t really know, and I would love to be a fly on the wall inside these corporations to better understand why they behave the way they are behaving, both when they are behaving well and when they are behaving poorly.
CI: What skills have helped you the most to succeed in the business and human rights field?
SS: Persistence. And positive thinking. If you can’t find something positive to think about here, then you wouldn’t be able to do this job because I think it would get too depressing.
CI: Who or what organizations do you look to as leaders in the business and human rights field?
SS: Earth Rights International was one of the first organizations to exclusively tie together environmental and human rights and argue that they are indistinguishably interconnected. At the time that they founded themselves and took this stand, both environmental and human rights organizations were mad about it and tried to argue against it. Now, most of them have come around, but at the time it was quite a unique point of view, so they were definitely leaders in that sense.
CI: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in business and human, the biggest contributions still needed?
SS: I think in terms of things remaining to be done I feel that we need to properly value individual human rights over corporate rights and change the way that we are systemically valuing corporations more, in terms of things like having the first question being, “What would make our stocks rise?” and thinking about the things that Wall Street analysts take into consideration when they’re deciding what has value. Some fundamental shifts are needed on both an ethical, moral point of view but also on a regulatory or legal point of view.
CI: What kind of future do you see business and human rights moving toward? What do you think the future of the business and human rights field will look like?
SS: I’ll tell you what I hope it does not look like. I hope that it doesn’t become a forum for green-washing of businesses, or human rights-washing or whatever you’d like to call it. I am sometimes concerned about the sort of corporatization of the field.