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Op­por­tu­nities and risks of doing busi­ness in complex en­vi­ron­ments

Interview mit dem Wirtschaftsberater des Internationalen Komitee vom Roten Kreuz (IKRK) Claude Voillat


What are the main challenges regarding security and human rights in complex environments?

Well, I think the main challenge, essential challenge, the one that articulates everything, is the issue of poor governance system. In most complex environments will be countries at war. You will find that the government system is very poor. You will find corruption. You will find no order. Which are situations that ultimately will empower the rich and powerful, for example military, political, religious or large business organisation. And situations that we have at the same time, power, and weakness - like local communities, minorities, marginalised segments of the population etc. So really, poor governance system is the main and essential challenge. It ripples into other effects like militarization where power and responsibilities are gradually handed over for people with weapons, military police, militias, vigilante groups. And also, one of the other consequences is that you will see a collapse of what I will call an “All of society” approach by those who manage the country. Which means a collapse of this approach where in principle, those in charge would look for the well-being of the country as it’s divided with all the segments of the population. And instead those in power will prioritise themselves individually, or their families, or their clan, or their tribe or religious affiliation. Nation at the expense of the broader good. So I would say this is the main challenge articulated in a poor government system.

What are some of the best practices when it comes to security and human rights in complex environments?

Well, best practises or good practises are very counter-specific. But there are a few things, generic things that we can find are valid. And one of them would be first of all, a very strong initial and continuous analysis of the situation, security situation, political situation where the business operates. Which means understanding very well the conditions where the business operates, but also understanding very well the impact of the corporate activity. So it means, this understanding has to look not only at the risks to business operations but also at the risks of the business operations on other stakeholders. So this very strong initial and continuous analysis and a very important first matter. Then I would say, inclusive and sincere stakeholders engagement. By inclusive I mean, businesses operating in complex environments should not be happy, by just focusing on a few stakeholders like the government or the rich and powerful, or those who are likely to support their activities. But they should engage much more broadly. I've said also sincere stakeholder engagement. By sincere I mean - this exercise should not be approached as a “tick box exercise”, which unfortunately, we see all too often. You know, just: I have to do this; I have to do this; I'm going to do this because I have to show that I did this. But my brain and my spirit is not at all engaging. But that's what I mean by sincere. You really do the exercise with a willingness to understand. To hold expectations of the various stakeholders around the operation. But this is a second point. The third point is you need to engage early with these stakeholders. You need to be proactive in this engagement rather than reactive. And you need to remember that you know, if you engage and the #### hits the fun. You are already in trouble and this will pursue you for many years. Finally, the fourth point is that you have to have an inclusive view of the company’s area of influence, which means you cannot just look at your company, orders of your company, but you have to look at the whole supply chain and contractors. Contractors are very important. The contractors are part of your company. And whatever they are doing is going to reflect directly on your company and have the impact in the relationship you have with community. So these are, you know, some of the good practises, generic good practises that would help working in complex environments.

What recommendations do you have for companies who are confronted with security and human rights challenges?

I would say it's all about mindset. It's not about setting your brain correctly. And there are a few things you should constantly be doing. One of them is always to keep in mind. If as a company manager, if I consider and treat any stakeholder as a threat. It will ultimately become a threat. So, very often we see this happening. Companies consider from the starting point the local communities around their operations as a potential threat and they organise their relationship around this premise that this is a threat when they engage with the local stakeholders, with local communities it feels very strongly that the company considers them as a threat. So it sets up, you know, a dynamic that ultimately will lead the situation into the local communities truly, really effectively becoming your threats. Because they feel that this is the only way through which they will be listened to by the company. So this is one thing. Keep in mind, if you consider any stakeholder as a threat, then most likely it will be one. And second thing, remember at all times when you are operating abroad. Should it be a conflict setting or complex security environment or not. Remember at all time: you as a company are guests in these communities. So these communities existed long before you came and they will exist long after you. So you should always keep this into that perspective, in the way you will balance the relationship. Then, the third thing that is very helpful and unfortunately only rarely used. Is that as a company manager, I should always, when I engage with the local community, I should always try to put myself in the shoes of community leaders I having trouble with and really try to do the exercise of understanding what would be my hopes and expectations if I wear these shoes. So I should imagine, reversing the situation and I should imagine myself in my hometown with a large company arriving with, you know, mega project or not mega project, but with projects that are going to impact my community and I should think. What would I do if that was happening in my community. This is the second thing that is very important, that should be used as an exercise. And then the third thing. The ultimate judgement is you should always weigh or measure your decision, the decisions you are going to take with this question. Can I tell the full story to my kids in the evening? By the full story, I mean not the story that the company is going to put on their sustainability report. The full story is the story of how I made the decisions. On which bases I made decisions? And what was my understanding when I made decisions on the consequences these decisions will have on the variety of stakeholders? So, am I able to tell my kids the full story and still keep the eyes of my kids, full of admiration, on myself. If I am, then probably I’m in the right path. If I am not, I should probably ask myself a few questions about the decisions I’m going to make. So, these kind of dining questions are not going to provide solution to issue or the problem. But it’s going to provide a framework that we made responsible management of the security challenges much more likely.

What is the role of the Red Cross in supporting companies confronted with security and human rights challenges?

Well, we as the International Committee of the Red Cross are working together with another Geneva-based organisation - Centre for Security Sector Dominance. And together what we do is that we made available the main guidance documents on the issue of conflict security and human rights or property operations. So, we collected the existing guidance documents and we put them in one place. To facilitate corporations work through this and make sure they know there is a place where you will find the most useful and relevant guidance in terms of management of our security issues. This is the first thing we do. A second thing we did and we continue to do is to ourselves develop a set of guidance where we identified a few gaps. And we developed our own set of guidance under former toolkit plus a number of other documents that we have, that are available on our website. And a third main thing we have been doing is also together with our partners at the Centre for Security Sector Dominance. Is participation, support, and facilitation of the work and reflection of multi-stakeholder groups working on these issues both at the global level and also, more precisely, possibly more importantly, at the county level. So, there are some business and human rights working groups working at the country level in some places like Democratic Republic of Congo, like Peru, like Colombia, and etc. And we have happened to participate in these discussions, feed these discussions or support some of these working groups to make sure that they can operate efficiently.