What business can learn from conflict zones to promote sustainable community peace

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Last summer, protests around the world occurred in the aftermath of the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Many protesters focused on the critical topic of police brutality. But the protests also brought to light myriad social and environmental inequities, including access to economic opportunities. In their aftermath, many businesses made pledges to support Black communities and their members through philanthropic contributions, investments in Black communities and enhanced employment outreach.

All of these pledges were important and necessary responses, and they do make some positive difference. But what else can businesses do as businesses to bring about a more healthy and vibrant Twin Cities?

To shed light on the role of business in our society, we have both considered the role of business in conflict zones across the world. It is worth thinking about whether the Twin Cities constitutes a conflict zone. Last summer’s social unrest may have shocked many locals, but it manifested the frustration of many with inequities that were ignored for too long. Meanwhile, the routine violence here may not be as consistent and catastrophic as it can be in typical conflict zones; however, any level of violence is unacceptably high. Moreover, intergroup inequity and systemic injustice yield widely and unfairly varying expectations among citizens about the possibility of prosperity and peace. Much as it has become clear that the American dream is not equally accessible to all Americans, “Minnesota Nice” is not equally nice to all Minnesotans.

One of us, Harry Van Buren, recently moved to Minneapolis from Beirut, Lebanon, and has also worked in Belfast, Northern Ireland — both societies in which the threat of conflict is never far from the surface and sporadic violence does sometimes occur. The other, Christopher Michaelson, grew up in Minnesota but lived in New York City on 9/11 and has studied the economic roots of terrorism.

Van Buren’s research (with Jay Joseph of the American University of Beirut) has focused on the contributions that businesses operating in conflict zones can make to sustainable peace that goes beyond the cessation of violence to bring about stability within communities. Van Buren and Joseph propose that a business can bring about sustainable peace when it does two things. First, it can operate inclusively — hiring, purchasing, selling, getting supplies from, and supplying — across different geographic, social, political, ethnic, religious and economic groups. Second, it can create value not just for itself, but for all of the stakeholders and communities it interacts with in an inclusive way. Assessing value is not just about measuring economic value (as important as that is), but also thinking about the process of how a business is creating value through ethical business practices that avoid exploiting workers, consumers, suppliers and communities. While philanthropy is important, operating in ways that are inclusive and that respect human rights, offering jobs with good wages and safe working conditions, and enhancing the ability of communities to develop matters far more in creating just, prosperous and peaceful communities.

Michaelson’s research (with Jennifer Tosti-Kharas of Babson College) has focused on what we have learned about the position of America, purpose of business and meaning of work since 9/11. Their research has considered how the rebalancing of economic power — globally and within the United States — should lead us to reimagine the so-called American dream, to which race and religion have too often been barriers. The two have also examined how the gradual shift from stockholder to stakeholder capitalism should lead individual businesses to rethink their reasons for being beyond economic value creation. And, the pair have studied how an emerging “purpose generation” is motivated as much by the prospect of performing meaningful work as by money.

Our work suggests that inclusive, value-creating and responsible business practices could do much to address many causes of conflict and bring about truly sustainable peace. But what can we learn from this research as it relates to our home?

Businesses should embrace the vital role they can play in creating the kinds of communities that every person needs and deserves — within their organizations and in their interactions with society. Addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of business operations will make a far greater contribution to sustainable peace than episodic philanthropy, valuable though the latter might be.

Finally, we are optimistic that an emerging generation of future leaders — that is increasingly representative of the race, gender and other diversity of our community — is committed to meaningful change. This includes a belief that the ethical and economic goals of business are intertwined. Through creating real value in an inclusive way, business contributions to sustainable peace in the broadest sense of the term can be profound. We invite the many businesses that in ways large and small enhance the quality of life throughout Minnesota to contribute to this conversation.

Harry Van Buren and Christopher Michaelson are on the faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

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