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Corporate Idealism

by Guest Blogger for Terra Lawson-Remer
May 5, 2014

Workers contracted by British Petroleum (BP) search the beach for tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 30, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Lee Celano). Workers contracted by British Petroleum (BP) search the beach for tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 30, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Lee Celano).

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Christine Bader, author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil.

The private sector clearly has a role to play in meeting the world’s most pressing needs. Companies can generate jobs and revenue, offer products and services that improve quality of life, and develop skills and infrastructure. Yet companies can also instigate harm to people and the environment. With this in mind, how should the development community — and the world more broadly — think about the role of business? Is it acceptable to partner with a company that offers its help, but may have caused harm elsewhere?

I struggled with these questions from the inside, working for British Petroleum (BP) in Indonesia, China, and at the company’s U.K. headquarters. My focus was on assessing and mitigating adverse human rights and social impacts in the communities where BP does business. For example, in Papua, I worked on a liquefied natural gas project that BP had acquired with its takeover of ARCO, the American oil company. The project involved relocating 127 families, so we brought in the World Bank’s top resettlement expert to help us meet (and in some ways exceed) international standards. We commissioned two former senior officials from the U.S. State Department to conduct the first-ever human rights impact assessment for a private sector project and consulted with experts in various development fields, aiming to minimize harm and maximize benefits in areas including migration, fisheries, the environment, and economic activity.

BP will be in Papua for generations, and it is too early to tell what the full impact of the project will be. But so far, development indicators for the area are positive — indicators for health, literacy, and employment are up — and BP’s activities there could prove a model for business projects around the world.

But one good project doesn’t mean that all is well: the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster showed that BP was far from perfect. I had left the company by then, but the incident made me question my nine years with the company. To reconcile the BP I thought I knew with the one that emerged in the press and investigations in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, I spoke with peers in other companies and industries who had similarly made progress on human rights in some respects, but had also seen horrible tragedies occur. For example, I reached out to supply chain experts in apparel companies who have been improving working conditions for factory workers for decades, but then witnessed the Rana Plaza factory collapse with horror and dismay.

My interviews and reflections turned into my book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, which argues that the push for change inside a company is incremental work: long-term progress can be made, but bad things may still happen along the way. Companies should never be allowed to use charitable contributions as a fig leaf to conceal harm done by their operations or at the far reaches of their supply chains. But even catastrophic damage does not negate the fact that companies have and will continue to make positive contributions to development in myriad ways. The corporate idealists I spoke with had faith that small steps are moving their super-sized companies in the right direction.

Just as people who choose to work inside companies must keep their eyes wide open, so too must the development agencies that partner with them. The safety and well-being of vulnerable communities depends on both the public and private sector’s awareness of the risks of business, ability to avoid harm, and commitment to turn corporate ventures into opportunities for all.

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