Audire Comment: Companies and Conflict

Buried in the middle of Brian Ganson and Achim Wennmann’s insightful analysis of business and conflict[1] is a statement which will resonate as much with practitioners inside companies, as with those outside them. ‘There is,’ they write, ‘a significant disconnect between…..largely aspirational norms and standards, and experience on the ground.’

In the international policy arena this disconnect has hampered efforts to either control behaviour of or enlist support from those companies which are increasingly incentivised to invest in riskier countries and regions. Over-arching rules and structures dominate; varied local and pragmatic solutions are underplayed.

So why the resonance? Why does their analysis apply as much within companies as outside?

In a large part of course it’s because the corporate world mirrors that of the international policy maker. The stakeholders who influence decisions at the executive level tend to be those focusing on policy, regulation and state-building.  At a local level interests are more likely to prioritise particular local circumstances – conflict or otherwise – where life can be messy, dynamic and fragile. Those closest to the conflict are often a long way (literally and figuratively) from the boardroom.

It’s also a lack of experienced resources: as Ganson and Wennmann point out very few companies employ conflict resolution specialists and ‘peace is not an area for amateurs’. But it’s more than this. Many companies also neglect the ways in which a range of corporate activity (employment, training and supply chain management being three most obvious) might be brought to bear to contribute to stability and mitigate risk, consigning responses instead into a silo marked ‘CSR’. And in multi-billion dollar projects, scant regard can be given to interventions costing mere thousands – even though low-cost responses may be more effective in fragile contexts.

So if the problem at the heart of Ganson and Wennmann’s analysis has its mirror image within companies, might the solutions be similarly reflected? Partly. Without question, companies should also implement inclusive and fit-for-propose mechanisms that analyse conflict, interrupt its escalation, resolve grievances and put in place locally-credible plans.

But companies can - and should - go further:

  • They should also choose carefully, invest in and listen to, frontline staff. Crucially companies need to recognise and manage the particular tensions that staff recruited from, then expected to work in, conflict environments might face.
  • Corporate policy and decision-making frameworks should be flexible enough to respond to and accommodate local circumstance. They are enablers, not ends in themselves.
  • Companies should cast a wider net to bring in expertise to address problems of fragility. Yes, the conflict resolution sphere has much to offer. But so too do others: specialists in polling and communications techniques for example; or from particular geographies; or from sectors relevant to local economic circumstances.

This book gives the debate a valuable shove away from the proselytising of grand designs, and towards workable and effective locally-driven solutions – as much within the corporate sphere as outside it. If nothing else Ganson and Wennmann make a powerful plea for moving from ‘an obsessive focus on rules and structures towards adaptive systems.’ Without altering the centre of gravity towards local and pragmatic responses, the nexus between business and conflict will remain one that is long on diagnosis and short on cures. Cures. Plural.


[1] Business and Conflict in Fragile States: The Case for Pragmatic Solutions by Brian Ganson and Achim Wennmann, IISS 2016.