The United Nations is aiming to engage the private sector in business partnerships that could play a role in aiding post-conflict reconstruction. The UN effort is geared toward promoting social responsibility in business practices and in the process accelerating the recovery of war-torn states. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 11 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Conducting business in a socially responsible way can make a global company very profitable.
That is one of the themes of an upcoming conference in New York that the United Nations hopes will promote a series of new partnerships between the world body and the private sector. The conference -- scheduled for May 31 to June 1 -- brings together some of the world's leading corporates executives, representatives of developments banks, non-governmental organizations, governments and UN agencies.
They will explore a subject of growing interest in the international business community -- the notion of a rules-based open system of international trade and investment that seeks to abide by environmental and labor standards and protect human rights.
One of the conference sessions will focus on ways in which partnerships between UN agencies and private businesses could help post-conflict rehabilitation in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Angola.
That session is scheduled to hear from the Israeli minister of regional cooperation, Shimon Peres, and from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton accords which ended the war in Bosnia.
The conference is being organized by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS). The office, known as the "business arm of the UN," works with other UN entities to manage projects to help developing nations and countries with economies in transition to achieve peace and economic growth. The executive director of UNOPS, Reinhart Helmke, told reporters at a news conference last week that post-conflict reconstruction is often difficult because of fundamental problems in changing from a war economy to a peace economy.
But Helmke says that when businesses start to make their investment decisions in conflict zones based on ethical considerations, such as respect for human rights, they can have a positive impact on these areas.
"We really believe that companies that are ready to adopt the same kind of values can make a great contribution towards relaunching a peace economy in a country. "
Helmke's own agency, UNOPS, is bound by the values set in the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has still managed to be successful. UNOPS, a spinoff from the UN Development Program, now has a 4 billion dollar portfolio of projects and is self-financed.
Helmke says it has succeeded despite operating in some very difficult environments. In Afghanistan, for example, UNOPS has to deal with shuras -- local Islamic councils -- that don't always share the values of UN agencies.
"If there is a shura that says 'we would like to work with you and we would like to go into joint investments with UNOPS, however we would like to exclude the ethnic minority -- say, the Uzbek minority -- because we traditionally don't work with them,' then our people would have to say 'no, we cannot do this.' We cannot be seen as promoting social exclusion, which is precisely at the root of so many of the conflicts that there are."
A new study on international business practices suggests that some of the worlds largest companies are already embracing some of the values that would need to be observed in any partnership with the United Nations. A new report by the United Kingdom's Ashridge Center for Business and Society says concerns about human rights are having a significant impact on the investment decisions of the world's leading companies.
The survey, reported last week by the Financial Times, found that human rights issues had caused 36 percent of the biggest 500 companies to abandon a proposed investment project and 19 percent to disinvest from a country. Business interest in the issue, says the Financial Times, has grown along with the huge increase in foreign direct investment over the last 25 years to $400 billion.
But officials involved in UN work in the business world say there is a history of mistrust between the United Nations and the private sector dating from the Cold War that will take some time to overcome. And Helmke, of UNOPS, stresses that it is important that the push for partnerships not be seen as just another effort at fund-raising by the United Nations.
This point is also noted by Sam Brookfield, president of the business council for the United Nations Association of the United States of America. Brookfield tells RFE/RL that the success of public-private partnering as envisioned by the United Nations will ultimately be how profitable it is for business.
"But if you only go to the private sector to ask them for money and they get nothing of a sense of anything in return, they're never going to give anyway. So it has to be something a lot more than that."
The organizers of the next month's conference have invited a number of big insurance and re-insurance companies to take part. Helmke says this is because the investment decisions of private companies are very often directed by what the insurance companies say. He says so far there has been an "overwhelming" response from the private sector to the idea of the conference, and it comes from both rich and poor countries.
(Full details of the conference, "The UN and Business: A Partnership for the New Millennium," are available at www.unops.org.my/partnerships)