The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2018

A Seat at the Table: Capacities and limitations of private sector peacebuilding

  • Ben Miller, Prof Brian Ganson, Sarah Cechvala and Dr Jason Miklian
  • FEB 2019
  • Tags Reports, Leadership
11 minutes to read


Ben Miller, Prof Brian Ganson, Sarah Cechvala and Dr Jason Miklian

Can the private sector help to build peace?

This report presents the findings of a two-year learning project about engaging the private sector as new peacebuilding actor.

The project’s point of departure is the marked transformation in the discourse on the role of companies in conflict environments. Understanding of the management of social impacts has grown as consensus builds that companies must avoid negative societal impacts as a matter of both risk management and responsible corporate citizenship. That is why companies should, for example, avoid complicity in human rights violations or operational impacts that create social and environmental harm. And that is why a growing number of scholars, governments, NGOs and multilateral agencies argue that businesses should act in ways that also contribute to peace.

Within this context, the project documents a wide range of company practices, connects these to the theories and assumptions on which different approaches are built, and assesses evidence of impact on key drivers of conflict and peace.

This project was undertaken by CDA Collaborative Learning (CDA), the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (ACDS), and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Key takeaways of the project from different perspectives

Key takeaways for companies that aspire to help build peace include the need to start from a firm foundation: nuanced understanding of conflict dynamics and conflict-sensitive business operations that both mitigate risks of exacerbating conflict and build credibility with other actors. Companies can then mobilise their networks and resources to catalyse positive relations between other actors in the context, facilitate constructive action together with other peace-minded actors, and influence decision-makers in questions of conflict and peace – realising that their strength as peacebuilders comes less from their ability to change conditions on the ground than from their ability to help positively shape power relationships and institutional arrangements that underlie conflict.

Key takeaways for peacebuilders include the need to deal with companies as with any other actor in a conflict environment: engaging realistically based on the perceptions, interests and incentives of a particular company within its context today while working toward a more peace-positive mind-set and role for the future. This is facilitated by examining the intersection of peacebuilding with a variety of corporate agendas and constraints in conflict environments, as well as by understanding the comparative advantages of companies as peacebuilding allies: as access points to key people, conveners and actors able to help increase the voice and legitimacy of disenfranchised parties. It is also facilitated by understanding a company as a heterogeneous entity in which different levels, functions and leaders may have different interests in, and appetite for, peacebuilding action.

Key takeaways for policy actors include the imperative to distinguish between private sector policy and action that creates external social value, on the one hand, and that which builds peace, on the other hand. To the extent that policy actors aspire to change key driving factors of conflict and violence sufficient to achieve “Peace Writ Large,” there is a need to analyse the key drivers of conflict and peace, conceptualise strategies for addressing conflict dynamics and supporting peace dynamics that include a private sector role, and act in collaboration with like-minded actors. In support of business and peace efforts specifically, policy and donor support may usefully focus on space and support for multi-stakeholder dialogue on questions of conflict and peace; accelerating the conflict-sensitive business practice agenda; and applying a conflict lens to policies related to private sector promotion — with particular attention to possible unintended negative impacts of private sector promotion on those most affected by conflict.

Full report

A need for better evidence about business as a peacebuilding actor

Increasingly, the private sector is seen as an engine of development, an inhibitor of fragility, and as a category of actors that has an ability to shift conflict dynamics in a manner that favours peace in fragile and conflict-affected states. Some scholars, NGOs, governments and multilateral institutions are suggesting that there is a unique and as yet untapped role for the private sector to advance peace and curtail fragility. Yet, there is little reliable or practically useful evidence about what specifically private sector actors might do to fulfil it.

Policy makers, peacebuilders and companies themselves are uncertain about what should be asked of companies regarding peace. Can the job creation and economic growth to which private sector actors contribute be seen as peacebuilding? Can ongoing efforts to adhere to global standards of performance, to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, or improve the impact of CSR efforts be seen as part of peacebuilding? Can the ways in which core company operations and other activities are undertaken be seen as part of peacebuilding?

Lack of clarity about these issues has significant implications for the way resources are mobilised and initiatives are implemented. Faulty assumptions can lead to the misallocation of resources, or worse, outcomes that intensify conflict.

Finding a way forward

The question at the heart of this project relates to the effectiveness of companies’ efforts to reduce conflict and build peace. What works, and what does not work? This framing relies on a distinction between “working in conflict” and “working on conflict”.

Conflict sensitivity is an approach to operations in conflict settings that does not necessarily have peace as a specific goal; it rather aims to enable operations to go forward in a way that reduces the intensity of conflict and, where possible, supports peace.

Our analysis identified patterns across the case studies that suggest that companies can in fact operate in ways that help establish or sustain peace, or to mitigate conflict. However, the patterns suggest that this happens in ways that are quite different from those posited by the exponents of a private sector role in peace, and that it happens more infrequently and with much greater difficulty than the excitement among policy actors would imply.

What are the key lessons from this project?

  • Private sector enterprises in fragile and conflict-affected contexts are neither intrinsically peace-positive nor intrinsically peace-negative.
  • Companies that create positive impacts on peace and conflict demonstrate both exceptional abilities and exceptional willingness.
  • A company that contributes to peace is not categorically different from other peacebuilding actors.
  • Private sector companies are more likely to act when the presence of conflict or the absence of peace impacts their ability to establish or maintain operations.
  • There appear to be limitations on the scope of impact of an individual company.
  • Company efforts to build peace suffer from the same challenges and shortcomings as those of other peacebuilding actors.

The report concludes with briefing notes on the implications of the findings for the actors:

  • Briefing note for individual companies: understand conflict dynamics, focus on conflict-sensitive business operations, collaborate with other peace-minded actors, ensure more effective engagement internally, and focus on effective peacebuilding roles and means.
  • Briefing note for peacebuilding practitioners: understand corporate language and perspectives, consider company constraints, capitalise on a company’s comparative advantages, and multiply entry points for company change.
  • Briefing note for policy actors: create opportunities and institutionalise support for dialogue and collective action, use multiple leverage points to promote conflict sensitivity at the enterprise level, and ensure that private sector promotion policies are conflict sensitive.
Full report
  • Prof Brian Ganson is head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement at USB. He is one of the co-authors of A Seat at the Table: Capacities and Limitations of Private Sector Peacebuilding.

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