I’ve just returned from Paris, where I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct hosted by the OECD. Conferences offer a great opportunity to assess the state of play of business and human rights, and this one showed that the momentum around implementation of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises continues to build. The overall tone was positive, although the recent tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh cast a long shadow over the discussions, which ranged from the vagaries of disclosure and reporting to the challenges inherent in stakeholder engagement. The breadth and depth of the panel discussions makes it impossible to summarize everything I absorbed, but I’d like to share a few salient takeaways:
1) We are inching ever closer to abolishing the concept of ‘responsible’ business as being something distinct from business as usual. Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School at Tufts University was convincingly adamant that ‘[y]ou cannot scold, regulate, punish and nag your way to responsible conduct. It has to become part and parcel of regular business practices.’ (See his blog post here for more detail).
2) There is a strong business case for meaningful stakeholder engagement, especially in the extractive industries. Non-technical risks such as delayed or conflict-obstructed operations carry a prohibitively high cost, and it is thus in the corporation’s best interest to limit these risks by engaging immediately and continuously with stakeholders.
3) The major gap that still exists in the business and human rights field is one of practical guidance. We have a vast proliferation of guidelines, multistakeholder initiatives, norms, and frameworks, but we lack systematic procedures for implementing them. Many corporations are genuinely interested in establishing human rights best practices, but the plethora of competing normative frameworks gives them an easy excuse for inaction – confusion. This is a key area of opportunity for civil society, and closing this gap remains one of my central missions as a human rights consultant.
4) Engaging financial sector organizations on human rights is key to establishing widespread ethical baselines, since all commercial enterprises will seek financing at some juncture in their development.
5) We need to raise the bar of responsible business conduct from ‘doing no harm’ to positively impacting on development by ensuring economic access and improving well-being for the poorest of the poor. Economic growth needs to be inclusive, not just fast.
6) We also need more people at the table. Although the conference was well-attended, and by some truly stellar individuals (I’m looking at you, Sharan Burrow), there was a dearth of key implementers such as line managers, directors, and other non-CSR corporate representatives, as well as limited representatives of victims, laborers, shareholders, and local communities.