It Takes Two To Tango – Communities Encounter Multi-national Corporations

I recently finished a course on “conflict coaching” at James Cook University.  We studied the “REAL Conflict Coaching” approach, which is a very powerful way of empowering people who are engaged in conflict.

Part of the course involved preparing a mock journal article.  As I progress towards a Masters degree in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales, I’ve been linking coursework with my own experience in international development – sometimes connecting with our external mission of enhancing wellbeing, promoting and defending human rights, and working towards social justice, and sometimes thinking about how my coursework can be relevant in the internal environment of our value-driven organisations.

The paper I prepared for the course at James Cook explored how the principles and methods of conflict coaching could be adapted for use by NGO staff in one particular context: empowering communities in the Global South that are in conflict with multi-national corporations (MNCs).

Over the last few decades, economic globalisation has led to increasing conflict between communities in the Global South and (MNCs), often related to the exploitation of natural resources.  In my experience, this is new territory for staff in non-governmental organisations – we are well-versed in working with local communities in their struggles for development or social justice, but we are much less familiar with the complex and conflictive encounters now taking place between communities and MNCs.

This means that additional tools and skills will be required for NGO staff as they seek to support local people in these new kinds of conflicts.  My paper explored the possible application of the principles and methods of conflict coaching, a relatively new discipline emerging from the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and executive coaching fields, in this new context. Despite some significant areas of divergence, I found that many of the tools and approaches used in conflict coaching could help NGO staff support communities in the Global South that face conflict with MNCs.

To examine how useful the principles and methods of conflict coaching would be in a real situation, I used information from an actual conflict between a community and an MNC, publicly available on the website of the World Bank Group’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO): a conflict between two communities in Uganda and a private sector company (the “New Forests Company” – NFC) that had funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank.

One of the roles of the CAO is to work to help communities and companies resolve conflict when World Bank funding is involved.  With support from Oxfam, communities in Mubende and Kiboga districts had submitted  complaints to the CAO, alleging violations of IFC performance standards by NFC, and when the complaints were found to be within the CAO’s mandate, and both communities and the NFC agreed to participate in a dispute resolution process, a lengthy (and, in the end, successful) mediation process began, including extensive preparation of the communities.

I used the Uganda case to illustrate how conflict coaching could be adapted for use in the kind of conflict faced by communities in Kiboga and Mubende.  The paper concludes that: “despite some significant areas of divergence, many of the tools and approaches used in conflict coaching could help NGO staff support communities in the Global South that face conflict with MNCs.”

I hope to write more about this topic soon, and have recently submitted an adapted version of the paper I wrote for the course to a (real, not mock!) journal.  Stay tuned for that…

But, meanwhile, I just found this new report, which summarises the case.  It is a very interesting summary of the CAO-led process in Mubende and Kiboga districts, with information that I did not have access to when I prepared my paper.  Which is unfortunate!

One conclusion offered by the report, which I can heartily agree with, reads as follows:

  • Can the outcomes achieved from this process be replicated?  CAO believes they can – but more importantly, that there are lessons to be learned from the approach taken in this case by the New Forests Company and the affected communities. This is an approach that could, and should, be proactively embedded in development projects. It is in everyone’s interests to try to prevent disputes where possible, to manage conflict situations positively, and to transform relationships in an effort to achieve positive and sustainable development outcomes.

We can all see that conflict is growing around the world, and instability is one characteristic of the times we live in.  Work by organisations like CAO is to be commended – they are part of the solution.  Not the only solution, but an important element of repairing harm in a world in which the less powerful often suffer grave injustice …

International NGOs should build their competencies to include tools of conflict management and dispute resolution if they are to continue to work with communities in the Global South, because those communities are increasingly facing the kinds of conflicts that took place in Mubende and Kiboga.