Business… with Liberty and Justice for All

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington

The 2012 Global Peace Index was released this week. This annual study of relative peacefulness and stability, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, found that in spite of some unfortunate pockets of strife and unrest (think Syria and Somalia), the world is more peaceful today than it has been since 2009.

In the face of so many challenges confronting our world, this is a positive development. It also reaffirms, for me at least, that in today’s dynamic, globalized world, the private sector has a responsibility and an opportunity to promote and advance the cornerstones of democracy – liberty and justice.

Once the more basic boxes of sustainability and responsibility are checked, corporate citizens can work with and support other sectors of society in ways, both large and small, that are mutually beneficial. After all, free enterprise is vital to democracy. And conversely, rule of law, transparent government, individual and property rights, the free flow of information—all hallmarks of true democracy—are essential to free enterprise.

The Center for International Private Enterprise said it best in their landmark policy paper, Helping Build Democracy that Delivers:

“Together with other citizens and segments of society, the business sector must play its part in democratic development. As a key component of civil society, business possesses resources, human capital, and problem-solving capabilities that can benefit society as a whole. A politically engaged private sector can improve policymaking, represent legitimate economic interests, and defend democratic rights and institutions.”

There is a lot corporations can do, directly and indirectly, long and short-term – from advocacy and moral support (alone or through trade groups or chambers of commerce), to new ventures, partnerships and direct investment. The dialogue at two recent events I attended underscores this point. A few weeks ago, I co-chaired a roundtable conference on building civil society after the Arab Spring, hosted by the Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility (AACR). And just last week, my company sponsored a forum with the National Press Club’s International Correspondents Committee on the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes.

As I noted during the AACR roundtable, from the smallest street market peddlers to the largest global corporations, there can be no mistake that businesses played a central role in spurring, supporting and shaping the Arab Spring. While experts continue to debate and discuss the specific root causes for the uprisings and escalation of civil protests, it’s likely that historians will one day point to the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi as a primary catalyst. Bouazizi was a man who felt so harassed, humiliated, repressed and defeated that he could only envision one response. From that horribly sad but galvanizing statement by a small business owner with a fruit cart to the tacit and explicit support of some of the world’s largest global corporations, including telecommunications and social media companies, business and the Arab Spring have arguably been inextricably linked.

In the months and years ahead, how will economic growth and democratic reform continue to play a role in the region? What can the private sector do to bring about positive changes in democratic governance and economic development? And what role and responsibility does the business sector really hold? These were just a few of the questions we explored in a panel session that included Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies; Gregory Simpson, Senior Project Officer at the Center for International Private Enterprise; and Nivin Safwat AbdelMeguid, a Leaders for Democracy fellow and research assistant at the American University of Cairo, who provided a firsthand account of what she experienced during the historic events in her native Egypt. I encourage those interested to review the summary report of the entire roundtable conference.

If the Arab Spring was about liberty, then the Special Court for Sierra Leone was about justice.

More on that in my next post.

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