Living and working responsibly in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Ukraine
23 November 2022
What is top of mind for business leaders working in these countries? Is it possible to carry out robust human rights due diligence when a country is at war or under a military junta? Do human rights professionals still work in these countries and what are the risks of doing so? How should a business decide whether to stay or go?
These are just a few of the questions that we explored with our clients in our latest twentyfifty webinar earlier this month. Recognising these are complex environments to work in that create dilemmas for our clients, we asked three of our associates to share their realities of living and working in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Ukraine. There are a surprising number of commonalities.
This is what we heard...
Language: The language used to describe ‘human rights’ might need to change to avoid getting into trouble. Perhaps ‘responsible business conduct’ or ‘supply chain due diligence’ might work instead.
Everyday essentials: Sometimes there is electricity and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the banks work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes your workforce is out protesting, volunteering or fighting a war. Running a business is ever-changing and you need to be resilient and adaptable.
Uncertainty: ‘Rules’ can change by the day. Whether it is related to taxation, banking regulation, rising inflation, political sensitivity, military involvement, safety, security, sanctions, property ownership or land rights. Uncertainty is your new friend.
Transparency: If you want a role in the future, you need to be transparent about how you do business, be clear about how your products are being used and build trust with the right stakeholders. There may be disruption, NGOs and governments may have fled but Civil Society remains and is keeping a close eye.
Commitment: These markets may represent only a small percentage of an international company's trade. The cost of doing business can be high. Are companies prepared to make the proper effort required to stay and work towards a longer-term plan? Ultimately it comes down to a company’s values and how they are balanced against the need to make shareholder returns.
With all these challenges, is it feasible to do business?
Yes, yes and yes. A resounding confirmation from all our associates that good business is possible. Here are a few wise words of wisdom:
- Building and nurturing local relationships and trust are important if you want to be considered for future business opportunities.
- By staying, you may encourage others to return as the hostilities end and law and order is restored.
- It is possible to conduct human rights due diligence with appropriate care. Not through ticking boxes but in as thorough and robust a way as possible, whilst taking care of those conducting it, and the workers and others contributing to it.
- To deliver a robust HRDD you need people on the ground who can build trust, understand the complexity and know what you as a business are dealing with. They may be at risk of repercussions, so work with them to minimise the risks and safeguard their integrity and safety.
- There are many things that on the surface, are not accessible (freedom of expression, use of social media, or even access to the internet) but there will be a way.
What is their advice to business leaders?
- It is about your business values and principles. If you can stay in these countries and navigate the challenges and avoid doing harm, then you will be in the best place to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.
- One of the most challenging issues is contributing financially to an abusive regime. The payment of taxes is a basic legal requirement of businesses and enables the provision of health services, education and welfare as well as the arming and training of the military. There is a line, and in the conduct of due diligence, companies must be careful to exclude the risk of complicity in war crimes or other violations of international humanitarian law.
- Delivering robust human rights due diligence is possible. To be successful, you need to allocate sufficient resources in terms of people and budget to conduct a robust HRDD process.
- You also need the willingness and commitment to navigate the complexity and uncertainty.