How Businesses Can Create Peace

Existing business practices can support world peace. Actions include reducing poverty, supporting rule of law, and building community.

Timothy Fort is Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University

A few years ago, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “A Natural History of Peace.” It was about a troop of baboons that lived on the outskirts of a tourist camp, where the baboons — or at least the aggressive alpha males — feasted on the leftovers from the tourists.

Then, tuberculosis hit the camp and the alpha males, who dominated the camp’s spoils, died, leaving less aggressive males and females. The culture of the troop changed: from being dominated by aggressive, alpha males to being based on sharing.

Even when new, aggressive alpha males came into the group — a regular practice among baboons – things did not change back to the old ways. The aggressive males adapted to the new, more egalitarian culture.

Sapolsky’s point: Baboon culture can adapt — and, since he was writing in Foreign Affairs, so can humans. Notice, he said, how Switzerland and Sweden have changed from a warring history to centuries of peaceful interaction. Notice, he continued, how Germany and Japan look much different than they did 80 years ago. Baboons change. Countries change. Can corporations?

I believe they can and they can do so in ways that reduce violence in the world. My research has shown that the practices of relatively non-violent societies (as determined by anthropologists) are similar to generally accepted ethical business practices. And so, there may be an unexpected payoff in being ethical in business: It just might reduce the ravages of conflict.

What are these corporate practices? Surprisingly, they are not all that different from what a well-run company might already do; it is just that practices are likely to be more effective if companies are aware of the powerful additional consequences of practicing good ethics.

Here are three key practices for peace.

1. Reduce Poverty

First, corporations should be profitable, create jobs and use procurement practices that ensure suppliers are practicing good management techniques.

Poverty is associated with violence. To the extent businesses can alleviate poverty through job growth, they make a positive contribution to peace, especially when that economic growth can come outside of resource extraction industries (such as oil and mining), and thereby let the local economy develop unique capabilities.

When the U.S. Department of State gave Motorola its “Award for Corporate Excellence” for its work in Malaysia, it noted that Motorola brought $1 billion of investment to the Malaysian economy. And not just investment, but technology that gave the Malaysian economy a competitive advantage. And not just dollars and hi-tech, but an insistence that suppliers adopt quality management strategies. By doing this, local businesses now know good management practices.

2. Support Rule of Law

Second, support good rule of law practices. Some of this is simply supporting efforts to protect contracts and property rights along with fair dispute resolution. But there is something more direct companies can do: eliminate or at least reduce bribery.

Studies show a clear correlation between corruption and violence. Exactly those countries that are the most corrupt are the countries that tend to resolve disputes by violence. And those that are not corrupt find other ways to resolve conflicts.

Here is a place where businesses can take concrete action: Strict corporate policies to limit or eliminate corruption move the needle away from violence and toward sustainable peace.

3. Build Community

Third, have a sense of community, both externally and internally.

The external aspect is corporate citizenship. Most businesses understand this. Be environmentally responsible, be respectful of local cultural practices or more simply, just be a good neighbor. In doing so, businesses will be agents of goodwill and cultural interchange rather than being the agent of oppression, colonialism or exploitation.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the internal dimension. Democratic practices, which emphasize the importance of voice, have long been associated with peace. Many contemporary business strategies, often associated with quality programs, stress how all employees should speak up if they see a product defect. That is a dimension of voice and it is worth thinking what lessons of participatory governance may be taught in an otherwise authoritarian environment and the impact that may have on political as well as corporate structures.

Further, with respect to the internal aspect of corporate community, gender equity is a strong marker of peaceful countries. What does your business do to create equal opportunity for women, to empower them or at least to create a fair, non-harassing environment? Businesses do not have to wait for others to take action on these kinds of issues. Instead, they can be in the vanguard of gender equality. Moreover, corporations that have strong, internal human rights policies further enhance traits correlated with peace.

Good businesses create peace

The good news is that these practices are not particularly strange or new. Good businesses already practice these behaviors. What the business and peace scholarship shows is that there are bigger consequences to these practices than what we might think. And so practicing them more mindfully, consistently and rigorously, will have then have an even greater impact on the creation of peaceful cultures.

Indeed, the risks of violence are too stark today to choose otherwise. Sapolsky’s baboons could not foresee the deadly consequences of eating tourist food. We can. Actually, some countries, as Sapolsky indicates, have. What businesses can now do, in this global environment that businesses have done much to create, is to face their baboon moment and move to create peace.

About the Author

Timothy L. Fort holds the Eveleigh Professorship in Business Ethics and is Professor of Business Law & Ethics at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Fort has written over eighty articles, and fifteen books. His primary research interest concerns how ethical business conduct can foster sustainable peace. He began that research in 1999 as one of the first people to look at the role business institutions can play in creating more harmonious environments. In addition to organizing fifteen conferences and encouraging more than one hundred scholars to turn their skills to this topic, he co-chaired a task force on the topic with the U.S. Institute of Peace and helped to develop a program with the U.S. State Department where MBA students served as pro bono consultants to entrepreneurs in conflict-sensitive zones around the world.

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  • Timothy Fort

    Timothy L. Fort holds the Eveleigh Professorship in Business Ethics and is Professor of Business Law & Ethics at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Fort has written over eighty articles, and fifteen books. Tim’s primary research interest concerns how ethical business conduct can foster sustainable peace. In addition to organizing fifteen conferences and encouraging more than one hundred scholars to turn their skills to this topic, he co-chaired a task force on the topic with the U.S. Institute of Peace and helped to develop a program with the U.S. State Department where MBA students served as pro bono consultants to entrepreneurs in conflict-sensitive zones around the world.

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