Business & Peace: The End of the Zero-Sum Game

Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace, and Talia Hagerty at the recent Peace Metrics conference in D.C.

I’ve been trying to debunk the “zero-sum game” since I first heard of it. Last month I had the opportunity to write a blog post for the United States Institute of Peace’s International Network for Economics and Conflict, and one of the points I came to was that the zero-sum game rests on conflict. If we’re fighting, the pie is limited; but if not, we can grow it for everyone. Find the full post below, originally published here.

The international movement to end apartheid in South Africa is a valuable example of the success of nonviolent social change. Activists regularly cite the success of the divestment campaign, boycotts, and other domestic acts of protest within South Africa as proof of the efficacy of these tactics. But, it turns out, there is actually more to this story. Not only did the private sector in South Africa react to activist pressure, but, as Yale doctoral candidate Tumi Makgetla demonstrates, business leaders took a proactive role in the peace process and contributed to both the critical mass and the practical resources needed for change. While we are accustomed to the narrative of social activism pitted against the joint-enemy of big business and unjust government, the case of South Africa shows that business can be a collaborative actor in social justice – and can be better off because of it.

Earlier this month graduate students from around the world gathered at the Kogod School of Business at American University (AU) to present groundbreaking work on business, economics, and peacebuilding in a conference, co-hosted with the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), entitled Peace Metrics, Peace Economics, and the Role of Business. IEP founder Steve Killelea opened the weekend by recognizing the student presenters for our participation in the first-ever conference of graduate student work on peace economics. The role of business in building peace has often seemed unclear, if existent at all. Kogod professor Jennifer Oetzel reiterated the challenge of private sector engagement in peacebuilding by noting that business schools are not currently training professionals for this role in the countries in which they operate. But examples given over the course of the weekend demonstrated that some businesses are increasingly and effectively engaged in peacebuilding.

Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace, and Talia Hagerty at the recent Peace Metrics conference in D.C.

Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace, and Talia Hagerty at the recent Peace Metrics conference in D.C.

Unfortunately, we are more familiar with the ways business negatively impacts peacefulness. Misty Seemans, an AU student, raised the example of Shell’s alleged abetting of human rights abuses in Nigeria; Elizabeth Armstrong from the University of St. Andrews discussed ways in which businesses in Colombia may prove counterproductive to the peace process there; and, to include illicit businesses, I spoke about the ways drug trafficking organizations in México use violence in their business models. Additonally, Jonathan Kolieb, a doctoral student from the University of Melbourne, noted in his presentation on international regulation that any institution that shapes behavior is a regulator, and so in this sense economic elites and/or violent actors may be acting as market regulators by maintaining the unpeaceful status quo. However, we also learned that business actors in South Africa, the Philippines, the Caucasus, Lebanon, and Kenya specifically, and in the technology sector globally, have aided peace, and that possibilities exist for businesses in Colombia and Mexico to do so as well.

The key questions, of course, are why is business important in peacebuilding and how can businesses engage in this process? In an environment of political instability, international sanctions, and domestic acts of protest, the private sector in South Africa had a strong incentive to work for peace. As activists know from this case, this shift in incentives was crucial to ending apartheid. Businesses faced considerable risks in getting involved, but other social actors demonstrated that the risks of the status quo were greater. Today, civil society organizations like IEP are working to show that our present violence is costing us – in lives and wellbeing, but also in economic growth. IEP estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of the U.S. GDP is spent on violence or its containment.

Robert Schlehuber, of Operation Respect and the AU School of International Service, challenged us to find the private sector’s place using the framework of collective impact theory. Successful collective impact relies, among other things, on infrastructural support – coordination, logistics, and resources from a central source. Given that the private sector excels at leadership, publicity, resource management, logistics, and communication, infrastructural support can be one ideal role for businesses in building peace. This support is the success Makgetla identified in South Africa and what Armstrong sees as possible in Colombia. South African firms engaged in and convened a number of peacebuilding initiatives, including engagement with black unions for labor reform, negotiations support, technical support, behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy, and the involvement of international actors. Businesses were able to share power with political and labor leaders in a positive-sum – rather than zero-sum – way. In situations of oppression, injustice, and violence, we find ourselves fighting over every slice of the socio-economic pie. But when we work together for peace, the whole pie grows.


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