Christine Bader, Human Rights Advisor, BSR

Not long after I joined BP in 2000, I became involved in the company’s efforts to implement the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPs). At the time, the VPs were a brand-new collaborative initiative, born out of the difficulties that extractive companies faced protecting staff and assets while ensuring that the rights of people living nearby were respected.

My role was to manage the social impacts of a gas project in a remote part of Indonesia where security was a concern and the military had fueled tension in the past, so we needed the guidance that the VPs provided. I also attended plenary meetings with the other companies, NGOs, and governments that signed onto the principles.

For my trips to the project site in Indonesia, I laced up my work boots to hike into villages and meet with our community affairs field team. There, we discussed matters ranging from uniforms for our security guards (black uniforms were a source of pride for the guards but intimidating to some in the community) to how to handle requests for equipment from the military and police.

For the plenary meetings, I packed my pantsuit and thought about governance: What should be the ground rules for VPs signatories? What should companies, governments, and NGOs be required to report to the plenary and to the public? How should dues be structured?

I had become accustomed to the whiplash moving between the field and the boardroom. But I couldn’t help wondering if the time I spent at the plenary meetings would have been better spent in the field. After all, the principles had been set in stone, so the only thing that mattered was implementation on the ground. Right?

On the other hand, I drew inspiration from meeting with people in other companies and NGOs committed to the same goal of responsible operations. And I knew that this was exactly the kind of multistakeholder collaboration needed to tackle the biggest problems facing global business. So I also wanted to be part of the VPs’ evolution as an initiative.

The tension between the slow pace of multistakeholder governance work and the urgency of the issues on the ground is typical of collaborative initiatives.

Like the Voluntary Principles, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) was born out of industrywide challenges. In 2006, tech companies began discussions with NGOs, socially responsible investors, and academics on how to handle host government requests related to censorship and surveillance.

Two years later, the GNI was formally launched with both principles and a governance and accountability framework. To those of us involved (I had observer status in the GNI), those years at times felt long. But who is to say that two years is too long when dealing with the thorniest issues of a generation?

The latest catalyst for collaborative efforts was the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. From that event, two initiatives emerged: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The Alliance comprises about 20 North American companies, which formed their own initiative after legal concerns about the Accord, which now has about 70 (mostly European) members.

Can the workers of Bangladesh wait two years, or however long it takes to get the Accord and the Alliance up and running? What happens in the meantime? I suspect that the staff of those companies will feel as I did at BP, torn between spending time in D.C. (or Berlin or Geneva) or flying to Dhaka, where attention and resources are desperately needed.

With any collaborative initiative, the question must be asked: Is this going to accelerate progress or divert attention and resources from the real problem?

The answer, usually, is both. Collaborative initiatives can accelerate the development of standards where regulation or enforcement are absent. But they can also divert time and attention away from the challenges on the ground, and they should never be seen as a panacea.

Companies need to appreciate that signing onto a collaborative initiative requires committing resources to both implementation and participation, and other stakeholders need to appreciate that collecting signatories is only the beginning. The challenge for all of us is to learn what has and has not worked in collaborative initiatives in the past, and apply those lessons to new initiatives so resources can be deployed where they are most needed: to the problems that inspired the initiative in the first place.

Join us at the BSR Conference 2013 to debate the value of collaborative initiatives in a session featuring Christine Bader; Sanjeev Khagram, John Parke Young Chair, Global Political Economy, Occidental College; Arvind Ganesan, Director, Business and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch; and moderated by Angie Farrag, Associate Director, BSR, Transport and Logistics.