Our Baboon Moment: How Businesses Can Create Peace

Timothy Fort September 19, 2017
NBS Thought Leaders offer guidance on sustainable business models for the 21st century. Thought Leaders are leading academics and practitioners: world experts on sustainability issues. Here, Timothy Fort, professor at the George Washington University School of Business, describes how existing business practices can support world peace.

A few years ago, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "The Forest Troop." 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, being the ones who dominated eating the camp's spoils, died, thus leaving the troop comprised of less aggressive males and females. The culture of the troop changed from being dominated by aggressive, hierarchical alpha males to one 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, hierarchical and aggressive ways. The aggressive males adapted to the new, more egalitarian culture. Sapolsky's point: Baboon culture can adapt and, since he was, after all, writing in Foreign Affairs, so can humans. Notice, he said, how Switzerland and Sweden have changed from a bellicose history to centuries now 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 foster reduced violence in the world. Indeed, my research has shown that the practices of relatively non-violent societies (as determined by anthropologists who study these things) 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 liable to be more effective if companies are mindful of the powerful additional consequences of practicing good ethics.

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.

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. But 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.

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.

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.

Biography

Timothy Fort is Lindner-Gambal Professor of Business Ethics at The George Washington (GW) University School of Business. Fort is the Executive Director of the GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility and the Director of the GW Peace through Commerce program. He is an Academic Advisor for the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics.

Additional Resources

Fort, T.L. 2008. Prophets, profits, and peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fort, T.L. 2007. Business, integrity, and peace. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, J. 2000. The business of peace: Business as a partner in conflict resolution. London: Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum.

Oliver Williams (Ed.). 2008. Peace through commerce: Responsible corporate citizenship and the ideals of the United Nations Global Compact. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.