The Business of Preventing Armed Conflict

Angela Riva Gamboa is the head of the Business, Conflict and Peace Building Program at Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP). 2

Preventing armed conflict might seem like a task only state agencies and civil society organizations are interested in, but businesses in conflict-prone areas are equally, if not more, interested in it. Armed conflict imposes additional costs on companies, which might not be evident, particularly if a company has been operating in a conflict-ridden area, such as Colombia, for many years. Armed conflict clearly creates difficulties for companies worldwide and challenges their capacity to secure the transactions necessary for business. The presence of illegal armed groups can significantly hinder companies from transporting personnel, buying goods, accessing facilities, constructing infrastructure,  delivering products, and even hiring employees—all common activities in business operations. Armed conflict also impedes local economic growth, political stability, socioeconomic development, and good governance, rendering business activities unsustainable. Thus it is in companies’ best interests to care about and work toward preventing conflict, though it is not always clear what a company can contribute to preventing conflict effectively.

The role of businesses in not only preventing but also generating armed conflict has become increasingly apparent.

The role of businesses in not only preventing but also generating armed conflict has become increasingly apparent. As companies working in complex environments all over the world have found, buying commodities from areas with a strong presence of illegal armed groups, exacerbating internal divisions within locals, or hiring services in areas where extortion is rampant can escalate, or even generate, conflict. Firms should, therefore, conduct their operations with an awareness of these concerns. Their managerial strategies should include an assessment of the effects of business activities on conflict dynamics, consultations with key stakeholders to understand their expectations and concerns about armed conflict, identification of risks related to armed conflict, policies on armed conflict, and procedures to implement such policies. For example, in the mining and energy sectors in Colombia, there is a general shift in the way in which companies assess risks and impacts, as well as important changes in the way in which they  handle and manage them.

However, adapting practices to prevent armed conflict and integrating them into business operations, though critical, is not enough. Certainly it is not the only way a company can contribute to conflict prevention, and stakeholders increasingly expect businesses to engage more visibly in this task. The experience of companies in Colombia shows at least two approaches on this front: The first, narrow, approach focuses on working with specific populations who are vulnerable to armed groups. Initiatives include preventing illegal armed groups from recruiting youth and supporting the socioeconomic reintegration of former combatants to avoid the recurrence of violence. In contemporary Colombia, the latter is more common: Colombia’s reintegration agency (ACR) has engaged a number of companies to contribute to the ongoing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process. The second, broad, approach focuses on a specific territory and seeks to provide the needed conditions for security and sustainable peace there. Through Peace and Development Programs civil society organizations and companies have committed to securing peace and socioeconomic development in a given territory.

In contemporary Colombia, companies seeking to effectively contribute to conflict prevention and sustainable peacebuilding need to adopt both the narrow and broad approaches (i.e., conduct operations without exacerbating or generating conflict as well as secure conditions for peace at the local level). In doing so, companies can benefit from working with other actors, such as government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Collaboration among different parties is widely acknowledged as key to successful interventions. Such collaboration can take a variety of forms—from multistakeholder initiatives focused on certifying conflict-free commodities to public-private partnerships aimed at assisting vulnerable populations.  However, this collective work is not always smooth and requires effort to secure constructive interactions. Choosing the right mode of interaction between companies and other actors depends greatly on the nature of the conflict, as well as the characters of the parties and the ways in which they have interacted with each other in the past. As such, there are no models, in the strict sense of the term, that can be followed, but certain elements have proved to improve a collaboration’s chances of success. To begin with, the agendas and strengths of each actor should be identified and built upon, allowing enough time to foster trust. The initiative should be designed in a way that benefits all parties involved. These are elements, rather than parts of a single model, that companies should bear in mind and adapt to their initiatives accordingly.

In contemporary Colombia, companies seeking to effectively contribute to conflict prevention and sustainable peacebuilding need to adopt both the narrow and broad approaches (i.e., conduct operations without exacerbating or generating conflict as well as secure conditions for peace at the local level).

Even though conflict prevention is in businesses’ best interests, companies can face both internal and external obstacles when engaging in such initiatives. Internal obstacles include apprehension over engaging in initiatives pertaining to armed conflict and peacebuilding, as well as the lack of clarity on why the company should engage in such initiatives. Further obstacles could make it difficult to effectively involve a relative inability to effectively carry out conflict prevention initiatives. Challenges include selling the idea internally and gaining employees’ and executives’ willingness to work on conflict prevention, identifying initiatives that are more relevant to a company’s activities and places of operation, and building the capacities to develop and carry out conflict prevention initiatives.

External obstacles often relate to lack of legitimacy of either the initiative or the actors involved, lack of security for those involved in the initiative, inability of other actors to effectively carry out the initiative’s activities, and the effects of conflict dynamics on the given initiative. Challenges thus include designing conflict prevention initiatives in a way that secures their legitimacy, identifying and engaging legitimate partners to carry out the initiative, avoiding security risks by either working on initiatives that no actor sees as a direct threat or staying away from areas that armed groups still control, developing capacity-building strategies so all partners can perform as expected to secure the initiative’s success, and adjusting the initiative based on shifting armed conflict dynamics.

Despite these challenges, engaging in conflict prevention initiatives is not only a wise decision for companies operating in conflict-affected areas but also a critical element in securing the sustainability of business operations.

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