Democratic Participation Via Business Platforms – Turning the ‘I’ in D&I The Other Way Around…
On Economic Democracy And Community Engagement In Business
As Hans Agné writes in his book ‘Democratism: Explaining International Politics with Democracy Beyond the State’, democracy is commonly associated with participative and inclusive decision-making processes as well as the public election of political leaders. However, it could also be described “as the shaping of human life”. As Agné reemphasizes, based on the latter definition of democracy, one may conclude that it is connected to “processes that create ideas […], non-binding norms […] and practices that easily transcend attempts at political steering and develop in social dynamics below the radar”. For instance, Agné describes ‘sustainable development’ as a process that creates certain ideas if not a mode of life.
Meanwhile, non-binding norms refer to principles that allow society to uphold a functioning social order. Whereas Agné mentions that the principle to ‘resolve conflicts peacefully’ is a sample for a non-binding norm, such a norm could also be to aim for an inclusive migration governance including in the domain of entrepreneurship. Finally, the afore-mentioned practices could, for instance, be migration and violence, but arguably also consequential practices such as illegal employment. To sum up, Agné’s suggestion to “[study] democracy in human life practices” illustrates how even despised social practices and behaviours as well as live strategies may constitute constructs of democratic contestation.
Democracy may not necessarily be “internal to a political community” anymore, as Dahl and Barry suggested originally. Instead, the “effective participation” in multiple spheres of society and the global order may shape democracy, a process that is embedded in the ‘transnational’ and ‘global’ space as Agné emphasizes. As James Anderson argues in his book ‘Transnational Democracy: Political spaces and border crossings’, transnational democracy might not only be a process, but a task. Even though this may be contested amid recent times, Anderson’s 2002 findings suggest that neoliberal globalization came about with a need for non-state centric approaches to democracy respectively with such that focus a little less on the state as an entity, whose organs are able to ‘impose’ democracy in a top-down manner.
As Jan Aart Scholte reemphasized in 2014, “global connections have obtained historically unprecedented quantities, scopes, frequencies, velocities, intensities and impacts”, which has explained “increased efforts to govern global affairs” with the aim to reinvent ‘civil consent’ and preserve a global ‘good society’. Whether or not it makes sense to equate democracy with consent and a ‘good society’ could certainly be debated, however a still relevant point that Scholte made in 2014 is that theories about ‘global democracy’ have been developed by academics from the domain of politics with a lacking participation of debaters from the Global South and especially such, who fall outside the “middle-aged urban professional white men” category.
‘Democratic participation’ and ‘democratic behaviours’ that aim to (re)negotiate political and business decisions, which have not been based on an inclusive understanding of consent, may look different in a variety of local, regional and international contexts, and within different domains of society (i.e. business, domestic politics, regional administration), they may occur in a variety of modes. Whereas some researchers debate how social media constitutes a participative tool that can be used to express political opposition, other researchers have been more directly discussing concepts such as ‘e-democracy’ and establishing close links between democracy and (socio-)economic development.
As Roztocki, Strzelczyk and Weistroffer argue in their 2022 article ‘E-democracy and Socio-economic Development’, “ICT4D will help in creating an e-society free of exclusion […,where] socially disadvantaged segments of the population actively participate in the democratic process”. Regarding e-participation, e-democracy, e-governance and e-voting as a huge chance, the afore-mentioned researchers fail to emphasize that technologies do not only contribute to raising equality, but also to taking it down. As Alison Gillwald emphasizes in a 2017 Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chatham House publication, most Africans remain cut off from the internet, whereby access to the digital sphere alone remains insufficient to tackle ‘digital inequality’.
As we emphasized in an earlier article, in South Africa, digital access and equality needs to be analyzed keeping in mind the historical burdens of the Apartheid era. Various researchers have pointed out that ‘digital equality’ goes beyond what they have referred to as the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. With ‘digital redlining’ constituting “an intentional act of ‘digital exclusion’”, which very well constitutes a problem in South Africa (i.e. through Vumatel’s marginalizing WIFI network options), it needs to be understood that ‘democratic participation’ in business decisions, and especially with regard to such businesses that provide essential services (i.e. electricity, water, internet), is a necessity because companies have become the leaders of the world’s digitization and digital future. To refer back to Agné, the ‘digitization’ of society is ‘a process that creates certain ideas’. Similar to sustainable development, digitization has been regarded as a cornerstone and a catalyzer of a more inclusive future – of all species, living beings, the environment, people etc.
What may constitute a challenge with regard to the democratization of society, which could be regarded as a continued process of political balance, is to recognize accompanying processes of whatever arises as society’s major concern. What needs to be understood is that ‘global democracy’ has its limits, especially as long as businesses orient themselves at the grand narrative (i.e. sustainable development) and define necessary sub-processes themselves. When talking about democracy nowadays, it appears particularly important to analyze whether nation states have created regional platforms to enable an exchange between start-ups, small- and medium-sized businesses, civil society, politicians and law-makers. As Mahaputra and Saputra remind in their 2021 article ‘Application of Business Ethics and Business Law on Economic Democracy that Impacts Business Sustainability’, not all businesses commit themselves to keeping up with certain ethics. In order to push for ‘economic democracy’, there might be a need for (more effective) laws on business procedures.
Although the researchers contribute various interesting ideas, one of the key take-aways from their article is the statement that “[b]usiness activity cannot be separated from the community because the community is a component that runs the business”. ‘Running a business’, in other words, would not be possible without consecutive demand, though the latter is just one mechanism through which a community gets involved in the success of a particular business. Involving a community in the development of a business strategy, including at later stages to update the latter, can bring about certain benefits in relation with a companies’ marketing strategy. As Lakshmi Narayanan points out in a blog article on CallHub, “[a] community engagement strategy is a step by step plan that details how to involve a community in bringing about social change”. Different from community outreach, community engagement aims at building a long-term, cooperative and inspirational relationship between a community or different communities and a business.
As Narayanan shows, there are various strategies businesses can employ to witness a community interact with its ideas, services, business culture, employees or product, all of which can arguably contribute insights that can be used to foster innovation at the small- and large scale. Whereas Narayanan does not emphasize this, community engagement strategies might arguably have to be designed with a view for local cultures and the concerns of particular target communities. And whereas community engagement is not the same as market research, especially based on its less explicit focus on producing analytical outcomes and its emphasis on cooperation, there are some common points. The real question is, how can businesses create forums, wherein communities enjoy participating?
A Need For Peacekeeping Guidelines For Multinational And Foreign Businesses
As indicated in a 2019 publication of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the sustainable development goals (SDGs) 8, 16 and 9 “create a momentum for inclusive growth, employment generation, decent work and transition to formality, as core components for conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery”. Promoting ‘decent work’ constitutes one objective to address the problematic relationship between informality (i.e. the informal economy) and conflict. As the publication explains, researchers have not yet found consensus when it comes to identifying whether informality is the cause of conflict or vice versa or both. However, among the main causes for conflict is “society[‘s demand] for inclusion and access to services, resources, opportunities, rights or identity”. Where conflict takes a toll on daily livelihood if not survival strategies or/and, where the dynamics of conflict somewhat endure in the post-conflict scenario, the ILO argues that informality has negative effects on “the development of sustainable enterprises”.
Rather than promoting financial inclusion as well as productive and thriving business environments, as the ILO reemphasizes, informality tames the potential of entrepreneurs and limits their ability to provide decent (work) opportunities to other citizens. It can be speculated that this may lead to reinforcing protests and conflict, especially where multiple crises meet and the state fails to provide basic services. The latter is illustrated by South Africa’s recent protests with regard to energy provision and blackouts, inflation, food prices, unemployment and decent wages in the country. Considering the fragility of South Africa’s historical and present disposition, the development of guidelines, especially for foreign businesses, to strengthen peace in the country might be indispensable.
As Jolyon Ford, Professor at the intersection of business, law and governance at the Australian National University (ANU), argues in the 2014 publication ‘Engaging the private sector in post-conflict recovery: Perspectives for SADPA’, public policy in South Africa has tended to focus on how local and foreign businesses can “attract, stimulate and support revitalisation of private economic activity, and how to regulate a business climate that is conducive to investment, growth and job creation”. And whereas these are relevant target objectives, policy-makers might also have to address more explicitly how domestic and foreign start-ups, SMEs and big businesses can contribute to strengthening peace in South Africa and other African countries beyond fostering economic prosperity and self-sufficiency.
As Ford explains, the focus on “economic aspects of post-conflict recovery” over traditional efforts expressed through development cooperation and the increased interest in fostering public-private partnerships, might be related with a certain disappointment with regard to the achievements of development cooperation per se. Rather than keeping putting hope in a ‘neo-colonial narrative of development’, policy-makers have created hope around the potential positive side effects of trade integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As various contributors mention in the 2021 ‘African Futures 2030’ Chaillot Paper, “security (conflicts, violence, armaments), sustainability (urbanisation, environment, governance, maritime) and growth (digitalisation, jobs, energy)” are a part of the “free trade architecture” of the AfCFTA, which may both strengthen and accelerate its impacts and, if attention is not paid to these objectives, render them ineffective.
Whereas the AfCFTA primarily focuses on fostering intra-regional trade relationships, it also aims to foster more effective trade relationships with countries outside the African continent, who will soon be able to interact with the AfCFTA’s one African market. Arguably, this context might speak for creating guidelines with regard to peacekeeping at the African Union (AU) level. Whereas the establishment of the AfCFTA is generally connected with fostering “‘[a]n integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa’”, the AfCFTA generally does not wish for an involvement with the peace and security affairs of African states. As §27(c) of the Agreement Establishing The African Continental Free Trade Area states, “[n]othing in this Protocol shall be construed to: (c) prevent any State Party from taking any action in pursuance of its obligations under the United Nations Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security”.
And while this paragraph focuses on the intersection of state sovereignty, peace and security and trade integration, the suggested guidelines could focus on a slightly different intersection to not come in the way of state sovereignty, namely the intersection of peacekeeping, free trade and business. Whereas the exact content of such guidelines would have to be discussed among multiple stakeholders (i.e. local communities, business of all scales, multinational and foreign businesses, CSOs and NGOs, industry experts and policy-makers), one aspect they should not neglect is the struggle of SMEs in (South) Africa. SMEs in South Africa already are faced with a variety of hurdles such as access to finance, resulting cash flow issues, struggles with ineffective government policies and political instability as well as a lack of access to (entrepreneurial) education as well as to basic resources such as energy.
Based on such a fragile creation environment, guidelines to foster and maintain peace in Africa through business (operations) should not restrict domestic businesses from their ability to operate and thrive. Whereas it is undeniably important that domestic and local businesses jump on the ‘sustainable business train’, foreign and multinational companies should have a larger responsibility with regard to peacekeeping as they relocate to Africa. This is actually not to punish foreign businesses, but to rethink what ‘development cooperation’ could look like in an age of constant change and fragility. CSOs and NGOs are not the only agents of development anymore and domestic and international law is a vehicle for change, which will have to be more strongly aligned with the domain of business in upcoming decades.
Whereas the law reflects the most basic social norms of different societies, the activities of businesses interact with the choices of citizens as the latter can only thrive on what has been made available to them, whether they engage in the creation process or not. As the PeaceNexus Foundation underlines in a 2019 publication, there are a range of existing standards when it comes to “Peacebuilding Business Criteria” (PBBC). However, the PeaceNexus Foundation itself has also set up a few guidelines, which establish that peacebuilding is more than compliance and “do no harm’. In the PeaceNexus Foundation’s understanding, PBBC is connected with “innovative social investment, stakeholder consultation, policy dialogue, advocacy and civic institution building, ideally through collective action with other companies”.
Having established a portrait of a role model “Peacebuilding company”, the PeaceNexus Foundation argues that: 1.) labour relations should be informed by inclusive and conflict-sensitive hiring as well as local recruitment; 2.) sourcing should strengthen local economies and be informed by due diligence; 3.) communities should be consulted for dialogue, given back to through investments and being compensated through grievance mechanisms; 4.) corporate governance should be based on accountability, whereby peace advocacy and conflict-sensitive leadership as well as transparency with regard to payment and working contracts plays a role; 5.) products should be designed to aid vulnerable populations with marketing efforts aimed at communicating a “Pro-peace” message and customer due diligence in place; 6.) the deployment of natural resources (i.e. water, electricity etc.) should be carried out with an awareness about their availability to other parties.
Whereas the PeaceNexus Foundation’s PBBC guidelines already put an emphasis on the fact that creation local jobs is not enough to give back to local communities when relocating to Africa, they arguably fail to emphasize principles with regard to the cooperation between foreign and multinational companies; local communities, governments and businesses as well as CSOs and NGOs. Whereas the guidelines do express that businesses should “[f]acilitate dialogue between government and communities if there is disagreement”, it should be specified on what basis this is carried out, how frequently and whether there is a need for training business representatives with the aim to facilitate community dialogue. Whereas (multinational) businesses undeniably invest in internal, that is organizational, diversity and inclusion (D&I), they should also make efforts with regard to promoting an inclusive customer experience.
Business is about more than selling a product or service. ‘Doing Business’ is one way of strengthening or weakening democracy along the lines of Agné, who described democracy “as the shaping of human life”. Thereby, ‘Shaping Democracy’ is not a process but it constitutes a sum of individual and collective actions by various stakeholders, who stand up for certain “processes that create ideas” and “non-binding norms”. Whereas ‘doing business in a pro-peace and pro-democracy manner’ may constitute a non-binding norm rather than a process such as ‘sustainable development’, which may render it more vulnerable to discussion, it seems that non-binding norms eventually and with the support of various populations, customers and/or stakeholders, be transformed into processes that find more general support. Businesses could accelerate this transformation from non-binding norms to trends by caring and making efforts to achieve a more inclusive product/service development process in interaction with local communities.
Whereas in the absence of alternatives, certain products and services may still sell on African markets, constant updates on innovation that are influenced by community feedback and developments may contribute to balancing out societal grievances and disparities. Rather than scaling up seemingly ‘universal’ solutions and fitting them a little to African markets, foreign businesses should make an effort to adapt their products and services to meet local needs and prevent offering similar solutions that local businesses have already put on the markets. Foreign businesses should seek to fill the gaps in innovation and not shy away from offering African SMEs effective B2B solutions. In addition, it could be discussed whether foreign companies should also engage in updates about local news. Especially where foreign businesses manage well to communicate with local communities about issues at the intersection of politics, local rights and business, their role as ‘mediators’ between the government, various societal groups and local populations could also more directly incorporate the responsibility to combat the spread of fake news.
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