Tag Archives: corporate benevolence

Is This A Serious Conversation?

Is this a serious conversation? Is he discussing this question in earnest and giving you second-personal authority, or is he simply going to decide what to believe and do it unilaterally? If the latter, then not only will there be nothing reciprocal about his choice, but also there will be nothing genuinely reciprocal about the conversation; it will not be serious. He will have no particular need to determine what you are going to do, say, by listening carefully, because his choice will be unilateral. If he is an egoistic non-cooperator, he will not cooperate whatever you say or do. He has nothing at stake in the conversation and need give you no authority in it, either to answer the theoretical question of what (to believe) you will do, or to answer the practical question of what to do himself. No genuine co-deliberation, either theoretical or practical, will occur.

I found my way back to this discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Darwall’s Second Person Standpoint after reading this morning that a group of leading NGOs had walked out of the Warsaw climate talks. “Talks like these amount to nothing if countries refuse to come to them and negotiate in good faith or worse, try to drag the process backwards,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Sam Smith. There are complaints that corporate sponsors compromised and undermined the talks from the get-go. But the conversation about what to do — and who should do what — was already at an impasse. There were a few fine speeches, but the time for fine speeches has long ago passed.

Some people — Suzanne Goldberg calls them “experts familiar… with the politics of climate change” in The Guardian today — seem to think that new research by Richard Heede will help “break the deadlock.” This seems like the sort of thing only experts and journalists who interview them can believe: that a piece of research is what’s needed to make an unserious conversation serious.

As The Guardian headline has it, Heede has identified ninety companies that have “caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” since the start of the industrial era. His list includes state-run companies and coal producers from around the world as well as big oil companies from the developed world. The idea, or at least the hope, is that Heede’s comprehensive, historical accounting of fossil-fuel producers will change the dynamics of the conversation, which has tended to pit developed against emerging economies, rich countries against poor, and so on.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Heede’s findings will really bring about anything like what Darwall calls “genuine co-deliberation” or translate to new cooperation. These talks are a game of dodge ball.

Al Gore is quoted here as saying that Heede’s list places “a clear obligation” on companies “historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere.” But what exactly does that obligation entail? “To be part of the solution,” says Gore. And how are these companies to be held to that obligation? Gore does not say; but without binding agreements and a whole new set of rules I am not sure we will get anything but the usual greenwashing rhetoric, more corporate funded climate denial and more inaction.

And even if we somehow do manage to hold fossil-fuel producing companies historically responsible, or (as Michael Mann suggests) fingerprint the sources of future emissions, we will need to hold ourselves and all fossil-fuel consumers responsible as well. That’s where the conversation gets really serious — when we start talking about historical responsibility as shared responsibility. Are we ready to start enumerating the obligations we all have on this score and figuring out how we are going to meet them? It seems very few people in Warsaw or anywhere this week really want to have that conversation.

Is Respect Really All That Simple?

Last week, John Ruggie addressed the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, where a “new global architecture” for corporate sustainability was unveiled and celebrated. Ruggie started out by talking about the special challenges — the “problems without passports” — that the world’s “tightly-coupled” systems present, and the inadequacy of our “largely self-interested politics” to address them. This was not, however, the brief he’d been given, so he had to move on; and I hope he’ll have more to say on the topic in the future. Instead, Ruggie had been asked, he said, “to say a word about respect,” and — not surprisingly — he took the opportunity to talk about the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how the framework helps companies meet their obligations to respect human rights.

I have been asked to say a word about respect, specifically about respecting human
rights. Its meaning is simple: treat people with dignity, be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders. But while the meaning is simple, mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice: companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights. This is where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights come in. [pdf.]

Fair enough, but I found myself pausing here, and wondering whether the meaning of “respect” is really so simple as Ruggie makes it out to be, or at least whether “treat people with dignity” is sufficient guidance.

I understand that Ruggie’s intention here is largely rhetorical: we all know what respect means, but we need more than fine words, declarations and definitions. We need practical and consistent ways of acknowledging, checking and demonstrating human rights commitments — “systems” like the UN Guiding Principles.

Still, there are good reasons to start unpacking — and challenging — this simple definition, if only to ward off misconceptions.

First, to say that “[to] respect” human rights means “[to] treat people with dignity” (and leave it at that) invites confusion, because it passes the semantic buck from respect to dignity. If we are to treat people “with dignity” — if that’s our definition of respect — then we had better have a good working definition of dignity to govern or temper our treatment of others.

Of course, the word “dignity” is a staple of human rights discourse, so we’ve got to make allowances for shorthand here. If we don’t — if we want to take the long route and spell things out — we will most likely find our way back to Kant’s moral theory. I’m not going to attempt a summary here except to say that for Kant, dignity imposes absolute and non-negotiable constraints on our treatment of other people. Our dignity derives from our moral stature as free, rational and autonomous agents — ends in ourselves — and cannot be discussed in terms of relative value (or usefulness, or any other relative terms). It must be respected: in other words, dignity imposes strict and inviolable limits, absolute constraints, on how we treat others and how others treat us.

Most obviously people may not be treated merely as means to our ends; and that caveat is especially important when it comes to business, where, for starters, people are valued and evaluated as priced labor or “talent,” in terms of services of they perform or as “human resources.” To respect the dignity of people — “be they workers, communities in which you operate, or other stakeholders” — is to recognize them as persons (or ends in themselves) and not just mere functions in an efficiency equation.

This is hasty pudding, but suffice it to say that in the Kantian idea of dignity there is the suggestion that respect follows from our recognition of others as persons: this is an idea suggested by the word “respect” itself, which comes from the Latin respicere, to look back, to give a second look. Every person deserves a second look — or I should say, demands it. Recognition is something we demand of others and others demand of us.

I like to put it this way: respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing we ask of each other. How we respond to this demand will depend in all cases upon whether we understand that our dignity as persons makes us mutually accountable or answerable to each other in the first place. So before we can talk about how we “treat” others — before we jump, with Ruggie, to considerations of behavior — let’s take a couple of steps back, and make sure that when we talk about respect we are also talking about recognition as well as accountability.

Of course all of this may be implied in Ruggie’s definition, and I wonder if recognition and accountability are just other ways of saying that companies must “know and show” that they respect human rights. My concern is that when you gather business leaders at the UN and tell them that to respect human rights is to treat people with dignity, you may leave them with the mistaken impression that dignity is something they have the power to confer on others, rather than something that makes them answerable to others. Dignity is not something the mighty can grant or deny the meek, and respect is not another word for benevolent gestures companies might make toward communities, workers and other stakeholders. Where people stand, business must yield.

The Limits of Corporate Benevolence, from Mongolia to Michigan

The phrase “human rights” is nowhere to be found in the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement, a document [pdf] that will play a critical role in guiding Mongolia’s development over the next decade. The Agreement sets the terms for the $6.2 billion investment in the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mining project, which promises to account for no less than one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by the year 2020. Rio Tinto has a 66 percent stake in the project through its subsidiary, Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd; the Mongolian government owns the rest.

Along with the serious environmental concerns cited by the United States when it abstained, in February of this year, from a World Bank investment scheme in Oyu Tolgoi, there are a host of human rights issues to address — from migrancy to land seizures, rights to the scarce water resources of the Gobi desert region, conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger camps, and the survival of Mongolia’s herder communities. (The Bank Information Center provides an overview of these concerns, here and here.) The Investment Agreement briefly addresses some of these points, but it resorts, in all instances, to what I would call the language of corporate benevolence.

So the Investor agrees to abide by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a voluntary agreement to publish payments made by the Oyu Tolgoi mine to the government); in another place (section 4.13; but cf. also section 4.6) the Investor consents to “build and maintain productive working relationships, based on principles of transparency, accountability, accuracy, trust, respect and mutual interests, with non-governmental organizations, civic groups, civil councils and other stakeholders.” Beyond this, there is not much else to guide or govern the company’s conduct vis a vis civil society and its responsibility to respect human rights.

Given the high stakes, the scale of Oyu Tolgoi and the involvement of the World Bank and IFC in the project, it is surprising the Agreement does not explicitly incorporate — or reference — the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Instead of creating binding agreements or even practical mechanisms to ensure that Oyu Tolgoi and the government of Mongolia meet their respective human rights obligations as the economy accelerates and the social terrain continues to shift, the Investment Agreement relies on the language of corporate social responsibility to smooth things over.

Part of the trouble with CSR isn’t just that it tends to replace binding agreements and articulated responsibilities with vague sentiments, the language of corporate benevolence, and promises of sustainability and shared prosperity. That’s bound to happen when social responsibility meets public relations. A bigger problem is that the commitments companies voluntarily make to contribute to economic development and social progress — and to respect human rights — will last only as long as the business requires them.

For an example of how abruptly a company can ditch stakeholder communities, what happened in Michigan yesterday with another Rio Tinto project may turn out to be more instructive than what’s happening right now in Mongolia. In the face of serious environmental and human rights challenges to its Eagle Mine project over the last several years, Rio Tinto all along touted its good corporate citizenship, promising to “leave more wood on the woodpile” and to take an active hand in the long term, “sustainable development” of the Upper Peninsula. That is just part of “The Way We Work,” as the title of a Rio Tinto CSR publication would have it — or at least it was the Way We Worked. Yesterday, the company announced that it had sold the Eagle Mine project to Toronto-based Lundin Mining for the tidy sum of $325 million cash — part of CEO Sam Walsh’s strategy to divest from “non-core” assets and protect the single-A credit rating the company currently enjoys. A community of stakeholders whose future Rio Tinto promised to make happy, bright and prosperous became, overnight, a disposable asset.