The Role of Business in Peace Processes: Missed Opportunities?

Politically Speaking
9 min readSep 10, 2021
Aerial view of shipping containers. Photo: Pexels/Tom Fisk

The approach to making and building peace has substantially evolved in the last three decades. The image of a group of men sitting around a table for peace talks is progressively giving way to a more expansive, inclusive and representative vision of the best way to end armed conflict and achieve lasting stability. The premise behind this change is simple: Those affected by conflict should have a say in ending and recovering from it. Women, youth and civil society generally are increasingly part of the peace and security conversation (see this example from Yemen). Still largely underexplored, however, is the role of business actors. To better understand the impact business can have on peace processes, we spoke to Josie Lianna Kaye, Director of TrustWorks Global, who specializes in peace mediation, peacebuilding and conflict prevention, with a particular focus on including business actors in peace and advising companies on conflict-sensitivity in complex contexts.

Politically Speaking: We’re aware of instances of the potential negative impact of business actors on peace and stability (in extractive industries, for example). Are there also positive examples of the impact of business actors in conflict settings?

Josie Lianna Kaye: There are two important facets to this question: the first is what we understand by ‘business actors’? In fragile states, most of the international community’s attention focuses on extractive actors associated with the so-called ‘resource curse’. And, due to the large footprint of such actors in contexts where land and natural resources are highly contested, the impacts are more likely to be negative and visible if not effectively managed by all stakeholders. When we broaden our definition of business actors to include formal/informal and local/international actors, it is quite evident that the State and local populations depend on business for taxes, financing and services/livelihoods. Focusing only on the negative impacts of extractives industries is therefore extremely reductive.

The second important aspect to consider is perspective: ‘positive’ from what perspective? Many business actors may be providing jobs to vulnerable populations, while simultaneously financing the warring parties, directly or indirectly; other business actors may be engaged in levels of corruption that are undermining state governance and the social contract, while actively seeking to mediate an end to violence or a minimum level of stability and predictability for their activities; others may seek to foster the dynamics of reconciliation in the workplace while inadvertently contributing to violence through their value and supply chains. The extractive industries may have positive impacts — by providing jobs, energy, infrastructure and other social benefits, for example — rather than and/or in addition to any negative impacts they may have.

So the answer to your question is that in any given context, the response is never binary and there are always a multitude of business actors that have both negative and positive impacts, and in order to fully grasp what these are we need to: a) suspend binary thinking, i.e. licit businesses are ‘good’ and illicit businesses are ‘bad’; and, b) avoid assuming that any one business actor has only one type of impact.

A tractor loads the timber on a truck in the National Tapajos forest — the only forest in Brazil with a management program for sustainable production of industrialized timber.
A tractor loads the timber on a truck in the National Tapajos forest — the only forest in Brazil with a management program for sustainable production of industrialized timber. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Are there examples of business actors being included in peace processes? Does this only include entities involved in legal activities, or also in illicit businesses?

There are a number of excellent examples. There is the now quite famous example of Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland — the former CEO of the Lonrho conglomerate, an extractives multinational corporation — who played a critical role as a mediator and facilitator in Mozambique in the 1980s. There was the ‘Consultative Business Movement’ that supported the negotiation of a new political settlement in post-apartheid South Africa. In Northern Ireland the business community actively lobbied for peace and organized meetings with all the political parties that participated in the peace talks. And more recently, in Yemen, representatives of some of the most important business families actively worked behind the scenes to seek a peaceful end to the conflict at various points from 2011 onwards.

In many of these contexts, the predominant form of engagement was with formal, licit business actors but there are also many examples of engagement with illicit actors, particularly behind the scenes and/or on the margins; a good example of this is the Anéfis process in Mali in 2015, which contributed to reducing violence between armed groups and communities related to competition over trafficking and trade routes. In most conflict contexts, however, the lines between licit and illicit can become quickly quite ‘fuzzy’, since they use the same roads, services and infrastructures and because war economies cannot be neatly ‘partitioned’ off from the rest of the economy.

What is interesting about these examples is that they mainly allude to cases where business actors themselves sought to be actively involved in formal peace processes; there are decidedly fewer examples of mediators proactively including business actors in peace broadly speaking (there are always exceptions of course, such as the UN in Somalia, for example). Business actors can be engaged in such a diversity of ways, it would be a mistake to limit their role to one of mediator or ‘peace lobbyist’, particularly since not all business actors want to play this role. It is much more important for peacemakers to incorporate the positive and negative roles of business actors — as a result of their core operations, their supply and value chains — into the elaboration of peace-related strategies.

What can business actors bring to the negotiating table in peace processes?

Business actors form a vital part of any democratic society, so they should be included on strategic grounds because we know that the more inclusive the peace process, the more sustainable it is likely to be. As a result of their horizontal and vertical linkages, business actors have significant political and societal influence that can be brought to bear on the mediation process.

From a substantive perspective, business actors have specific knowledge about formal and informal centres of power, the economy, trade routes, supply chains, conditions on the ground, intimate knowledge of how the country is integrated in regional and global political economies — all of which can help inform the peace mediation strategy and, potentially, the provisions of a peace settlement. For example, in Yemen, while the private sector was only given three seats (out of 565), during the National Dialogue Conference, the business community worked actively behind the scenes to try to ensure that economic issues were adequately and comprehensively addressed during that process.

From an implementation perspective, businesses with their vast networks, can leverage their political capital and knowledge in a manner that can help advocate for the implementation of the agreement in the post-conflict phases, and support such implementation more directly, as with the reintegration of ex-FARC combatants in Colombia, for example. Illicit business actors, in particular, are likely to have a vast wealth of knowledge about conflict dynamics, many communities may be dependent on them for survival, and the failure to bring them on board of any emerging peace settlement — and to consider alternative livelihood strategies — could result in them deliberately or inadvertently undermining the peace process.

Strawberry growers from the Association of Peacemakers in Cumbal, Nariño, Colombia. UN Verification Mission in Colombia Photo/Nadya González

What are the challenges for the inclusion of business actors in peace processes?

Unlike engagements with civil society, women, youth and non-state armed groups and even terrorist groups, which are more ‘codified’ in UN Security Council resolutions, protocols, trainings, guidance notes, practice and mind-sets, engagement with business actors is dependent on the individual initiative of the mediator or mediation team. There are no UN resolutions, protocols or guidance on how to include business actors in peace. If we use peace agreements as a proxy for understanding the extent of inclusion of business actors, for example, research demonstrates that only 2.5% of peace agreements signed since 1990 reference both licit and illicit business actors and such references tend to be superficial in nature. This is a major blind-spot.

As such, despite the conflict-reducing and peace-promoting potential of business actors, such opportunities are being consistently missed, undermining prospects for peace. And when mediators do try to include them, it too often comes as an afterthought to try to get them to finance the post-conflict recovery/peacebuilding phase.

These challenges are compounded by several factors. First, business actors tend to be perceived only as economic actors, despite their political interests, motivations and effects. Second, too often it is assumed that business actors are not interested in peace and/or are interested only in profit, despite the diversity of business actors and interests which need to be contextualized, understood and leveraged. Third, business actors tend to be viewed primarily through the ‘jobs’ lens, and only once a peace agreement has been signed. Business actors can contribute much more than jobs and including them further ‘upstream’ in the peace agreement would be much more effective. Lastly, business actors are not seen as natural partners for the UN. There is a certain cultural ‘discomfort’ with engaging with profit-seeking entities despite the increasingly strong awareness of the contributions business actors can make to peace.

From your experience, what are some best practices and policy implications for UN mediation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts that would help overcome/address these challenges?

Our work in this area suggests that policy changes are required both amongst Member States, including within the UN Security Council, and the UN Secretariat to ensure a ‘business lens’ is applied to all peace-related endeavors. A key step in this regard could be a UN Security Council resolution on the role of business actors in peace, which would not only clarify this role but also give a mandate to UN teams to engage with business.

The challenges mentioned above can be overcome by expanding the discourse and practice of inclusion to business actors — formal/informal, licit/illicit, local/international. In practice, this means ensuring business actors are more consistently included in country/mediation analyses, peace mediation strategies, and in formal and informal dialogue processes across all ‘tracks’. A ‘business lens’ can help ensure not only direct engagement with business actors when possible and/or necessary, but also ensure that all strategies across the humanitarian, development and peace ‘nexus’ are sensitive and adapted to the positive and negative roles that business actors play. Since research and best practices on engagement of business actors are relatively sparse compared to engagement with other actors, additional efforts to expand our knowledge concerning successful strategies and risk/opportunity management would also be useful.

Lastly, it is helpful to recognize that including business actors in peace does not require ‘reinventing the wheel’. Many of the strategies for engaging women, youth and civil society on the one hand, and for engaging with non-state armed or terrorist groups on the other hand, can be adapted and applied to business actors, while taking into consideration the specific risks and opportunities that engagement with them in any given context may pose.

Josie Lianna Kaye (PhD) is the Director of TrustWorks Global (TrustWorks). Josie specialises in peace mediation, peacebuilding and conflict prevention, with a particular focus on including business actors in peace and conflict-sensitive business operations in complex contexts. Josie has over 15 years of experience working with the United Nations, business, governments and civil society in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East on issues such as conflict sensitive development, insider mediation, cross-border security and cooperation, natural resource management/conflicts and fostering peace-sensitive investments in fragile states. Josie has gained unique experience on Track I and Track II mediation processes, led by internationally renowned mediators. Formerly, she worked for five years as the Assistant Director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR), a Staff Associate of Research and an adjunct Professor at Columbia University. Josie has a PhD from the University of Oxford entitled, ‘The business of peace and the politics of inclusion: What role for local ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ business actors in peace mediation?’

About TrustWorks: TrustWorks is a Swiss-based social enterprise that engages public and private actors to prevent conflict, promote peace and foster sustainability. Since 2013, TrustWorks has been working directly with business actors and governments in support of approaches to peace that are inclusive of business actors, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. TrustWorks also advises companies on how to operate in complex environments in a conflict-sensitive manner.

Josie Lianna Kaye, Gerald Pachoud and Arthur Boutellis (all from TrustWorks Global) led a discussion on the ‘role of business actors in peace processes’ for DPPA earlier this year.



Politically Speaking

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs