Long thought to be a rarefied calling for diplomats or dedicated activists, global peacebuilders are being pushed to accept a new player into their ranks: international business. Attempting to shed their post-Cold War reputations as conflict profiteers, transnational firms today from Shell and Starbucks to Chevron and Heineken are undertaking peacebuilding ventures within some of the most fragile, impoverished, and conflict-affected regions of the world. Governments, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the United Nations and the World Bank, and even some international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have all started to bring businesses aboard in public-private partnerships that try to stimulate peaceful development through poverty reduction, socio-economic growth, and inclusive negotiation.

Moreover, with IGOs like the United Nations increasingly unable to address the proliferating number of conflicts across the globe, businesses are even asked to contribute to peace amid the belief that their help is not only mutually adventageous but, in fact, necessary. The UN Global Compact (UNGC) has ramped up its engagements with their 8,000-strong network of businesses that have subscribed to their sustainability principles, launching a Business for Peace platform to mobilize corporate leadership and encourage direct private sector peace action. The United Nations has also included business stakeholders in their new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. And many in the private sector are thrilled, as once-wary INGOs tell them that what they already do anyway—helping to increase GDPs and expand markets—can now be presented as key and lasting ingredients to peace.

Peace rhetoric is also growing within firms themselves, in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities and attempts to implement conflict-sensitive business practices. A host of stakeholders are driving the push: shareholders who want more responsible firms, the international community of governments, IGOs and INGOs who see businesses as essential peace participants, and local governments and communities who want firms to contribute more to societal improvements through everything from development projects to a joint response to the European refugee crisis. And some firms aren’t afraid to market their efforts. For example, while most consider traditional efforts like that of the Nicosia Chamber of Commerce in Cyprus’s multi-decade peace process to be a peacebuilding activity, the firms that jumped to engage with Myanmar’s military regime after its economic opening say that they should be called peace-builders too, and rewarded as such.

In the absence of a clear definition of ‘peace,’ the business-peace field today is a Wild West of opportunities for companies to make their mark. What is missing is systematized evidence to categorize the wide variety of claims about how companies do—or don’t— support peace. Business for Peace echoes the idea of a ‘liberal peace,’ which has become an ideology in its own right. The UNGC declares that “the private sector can make important contributions” to peace, as the World Bank similarly posits the “catalytic role” of business in conflict reduction. Yet IGOs call for more investment in places where corporate activity is already exacerbating conflict, and the UNGC’s own report that “initiatives to promote conflict-sensitive practices have not been widely embraced and have not yielded a cumulative positive benefit to conflict-affected communities” is broadly ignored. Exuberance appears to have overtaken any commitment to understanding why what is working is working, and why what is not is not.

In the absence of a clear definition of ‘peace,’ the business-peace field today is a Wild West of opportunities for companies to make their mark.

To make sense of it all, we surveyed a broad swath of recent ventures where firms have acted effectively as peacebuilders as well as places where they have simply made conflict and violence worse. Synthesizing many of today’s implicit assumptions, we present five contemporary business actions that arguably advance peace: (1) growing markets and economically integrating regions to facilitate a peace dividend; (2) encouraging local development to grow local peace capacities; (3) importing international norms to improve democratic accountability; (4) changing the drivers or root causes of conflict; and (5) undertaking direct diplomatic efforts with conflict actors. We show that while some see ingenious initiatives brimming with possibilities, others see this as ‘peacewashing’ at best and corporate exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable at worst. We take a measured stance, finding that firms can become effective peacebuilders, but must tread carefully through societal minefields—and their own divergent interests—to get there.

Action I: Businesses Grow Markets that Create a ‘Peace Dividend’

Businesses bring countries and communities together. Or so goes the belief that through trade, economic growth, and capital injections, businesses provide the fundamental building blocks of development and peace to fragile countries. It’s a core paradigm of international political economy, associated with a who’s-who of historical heavy hitters in economics and philosophy, including John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, Francis Fukuyama and the Washington Consensus of policy prescriptions supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. If it is believed that economic ties make would-be advesaries less inclined to fight, generating local economic development through foreign investment can lead to peace. It is therefore ‘bad business’ to engage in conflict, and a ‘peace dividend’ of increased prosperity for all will result. While policies to boost economies in an effort to create more stable societies can be traced back centuries, the belief that prosperity equals peace (and thus more prosperity is peace-building) is more recent.

Today, this stance holds that economic development promises to reduce all types of conflict, and reframes corporate expansion as the proverbial plowshares. Examples include firms aiding the transition from a war to peace economy by helping to normalize trade and provide essential revenue streams (such as in post-2011 Myanmar), moving early into post-conflict or nearly post-conflict environments to solidify fragile economies (as in investment by resource firms in Kurdistan and Afghanistan), creating economic interdependence across geographic boundaries (like the European Economic Community/European Union). If businesses improve material conditions, conflict incentives are reduced, which in turn leads to more satisfied and peaceful populaces.

Action II: Businesses Make Peace by Bolstering Local Development Capacities

Another peace truism is that responsive and inclusive institutions reduce conflict; therefore, businesses should build local development capacities in their operational areas, which will facilitate local peace. Key members of the peacebuilding community have been drawing international businesses into development for three reasons: first, they believe that better corporate governance is in itself a conflict-sensitive peacebuilding venture; second, that inclusive collaborative action to mitigate local socio-economic ills can lead to broader societal peace; and third, to make use of corporate coffers in resource-scarce settings. Such assertions align seamlessly with corporate CSR goals, allowing firms to demonstrate good corporate citizenship by making a positive governance contribution.

Beginning largely as public relations efforts, CSR departments have grown rapidly. Today, they’re also development tools as firms try to deflect conflict and generate ‘shared value’ by being socially valuable local actors, often promoted through ‘win-win’ profit and peace metrics. Examples include corporate investment in peacebuilding like Newmont Gold’s recognition of Ghana’s Peace Councils in its grievance resolution processes, and Barrick Gold’s support for municipal planning and service delivery in the Dominican Republic. IGOs like the World Bank highlight job creation to promote peace and social cohesion, especially through establishing inclusive and diverse workplaces. An NGO-corporate alliance managing the Virunga Park in Eastern Congo aims to create a corporate ‘peace zone’ around the park, arguing that private sector jobs for rebels and poachers will secure its precious flora and fauna. Employment is thus not only an economic benefit, but also promotes trust, reduces stereotypes, and offers an alternative to fighting. Business motivations for peace essentially take a back seat to operational effectiveness, or as Starbucks Coffee CEO Howard Schultz framed his firm’s impressive CSR portfolio: “This is not altruistic; this is business.”

Action III: Businesses Influence Peace by Importing International Democratic Norms

The philosophy of leading by example also drives business-peace calculations. The belief is that when international (typically Western) firms import sophisticated standards, norms, and ethics, the structural conditions for peace are improved, changing local institutional incentives. Firms reward good behavior through additional investment, or punish bad behavior by withdrawing—and removing the tax bases that their operations provide. Other initiatives include business compliance and risk mitigation strategies, believing that being good corporate citizens will reshape the conduct of those involved. This approach encourages buy-ins that firms find predictable and achievable, as they promise a competitive engagement with governments, as opposed to negotiating with rebel groups or other less predictable actors.

Corporations working in conflict zones are slowly accepting the notion that they are ‘of the conflict’ from their very presence, and that this presence has consequences. By adhering to global standards such as the Voluntary Principles, they often require higher standards of conduct from their local security providers, in contexts where these are usually considered part of the problem. Activities include training local security forces with the help of the international community, working with anti-corruption watchdogs to support initiatives in corrupt countries (such as Transparency International’s partnership on OECD anti-bribery efforts), strengthening the voice of local government and civil society (such as the Tintaya copper mine dialogue table in Peru by BHP Billiton), and partnering on global trends that are presumed to exacerbate local conflict, including the business Caring For Climate initiative launched alongside the COP21 Paris Climate Summit and involvement in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More ethical business practices are thought to percolate positively throughout broader society, making democratic and non-violent means of redress more realistic and possible.

Action IV: Businesses Build Peace by Tackling the Drivers and Root Causes of Conflict

Some firms try to act on issues that they see as causing or exacerbating conflict. These drivers can be economic, political, or structural in nature, and the thinking is that if material conditions on the ground can be improved, the root causes of conflict are addressed and the incentives for conflict are reduced. For firms, this often means attempting to stop financial flows to conflict actors. Examples include getting businesses to sign on to the Kimberley Process for diamonds, conflict-free minerals initiatives in Central Africa, efforts to prevent the sale of oil from ISIS-held areas, and preventing payment of royalties/taxes to oppressive regimes. Big INGOs like Global Witness and International Alert advocate that more open trade and finance regimes can stop wars—and that getting businesses to stop dealing with oppressive regimes and rebel movements can force peace. In support, many firms have instituted conflict sensitive business practice toolkits. Firms often see these initiatives helping to prevent abuses while also reducing incentives for themselves and competitors to operate unethically. These actions can also be positively presented to shareholders, activists, and others as proof that they are helping contribute to peace.

Businesses also attempt to address root causes of insecurity that are assumed to lead to violence. For example, in Sri Lanka, it was the business community that facilitated the peace process. Juan Valdez coffee farmers and other firms in Colombia have hired former rebels during post-conflict peace processes, and HDW, a private security firm operating in the Eastern Congo city of Goma, employs a large proportion of demobilized rebels. In the tense borderland between North and South Korea, a firm operating an export-processing zone puts employees from both parties of the conflict together. And business organizations have partnered with governments and international bodies to pressure regimes with discriminatory policies to achieve political change that is assumed to bring peace, as in boycotts designed to pressure the South African apartheid policy. Such actions undoubtedly have important financial and public relations benefits, but are underpinned in the belief that if each corporate citizen does its part to re-integrate peace into society, both business and society will reap lasting rewards.

Action V: Businesses Make Peace by Direct Diplomatic Efforts with Conflict Actors

Finally, businesses can directly participate in peace processes and conflict resolution negotiations. Here we find business actors acting as mediators, providing a vested stake in moving peace processes forward to “yes.” This can take several forms: by being at the table as peace process participants, as mediators, entering into business partnerships with former conflict elites to encourage their reintegration into society, or in using their local economic power to leverage recalcitrant or disinterested actors to come to the peace table. Business leaders who actively pursue peace are often celebrated, and their leadership is presumed to inspire others to action.

To improve the peace climate, a firm might facilitate a dialogue process between warring factions, as Chevron did in Papua New Guinea by hiring trained mediators, believing that there is a causal link between dialogue, grievances, and peace. Even though Chevron’s activities had little to do with the local dispute, the fighting made the business environment more fragile, so they were incentivized to contribute toward its cessation. In this sense, ‘peacebuilding’ is also risk and impact management for the firm. Other examples abound, including the Nicosia Chamber of Commerce’s role in the Cyprus peace processes and the efforts of South African and international firms during Apartheid to support the democratic transition. Often spearheaded by individual businesspeople, these sorts of activities are not without political and reputational risk.

Should Businesses Really Be in This Business?

These five actions seem altruistic and benign, but are also fiercely contested as part of the battle over who will get to define, make and implement ‘peace.’ Our research shows that detractors fall along three primary lines: those who say that these actions don’t have any real impact; those who say that these actions are done outside of core competencies and simply cause new problems; and those who say that the entire premise is merely a front for deeper penetration into the corporate greenfields of the world. We take each in turn.

First, does business engagement really produce peace? The answer, unfortunately, is: ‘it depends,’ and often, business itself is complicit in driving conflict. AngloGold Ashanti, Anvil Mining, and American Mineral Fields aided rebels to secure mining rights in Congo. Relationships between trade and peace are murky, with trade often thriving despite any advances towards peace. Many business ventures in conflict zones support double-digit GDP growth rates in elite enclaves, while conflict and poverty rage unabated in other parts of the country. Empirical links between corporate standards and peace generation are also tenuous, as institutional reforms that attract investment may have little to do with broader reform that could create a new social contract, and firms complain of the difficulty of implementing standards in the best of circumstances, let alone in conflict-affected areas.

CSR ventures are also problematic, often amounting to little more than PR ventures that have little effect on the ground. While some professional CSR operations are genuine in their intentions, their policies only carry limited influence upon core corporate deliberations. Some companies instead use the cover of CSR to increase their local security budgets, allowing the suppression of local resistance to contested operations. Further, new morality-based CSR approaches linking ethics, activities, norms, and responsibilities are often too complicated to implement across larger companies; CSR is not a strong in-house strategic platform for generating business value, and host governments are wary of foreign CSR ‘contributions’ meddling with local authority. Critics also ask if expanding corporate reach in fact keeps host states weak by reducing local capacity. Because of these and other issues, some in the business community itself are tiring of the CSR concept, looking to move to the next big idea that can generate positive social impact.

Second, business activity can and has worsened some generalized conflict drivers such as inequality. In resource-poor societies, mining new resources often adds another layer of competition between conflict actors, rebutting the assumption that more business makes more peace. Large new investments can calcify strongmen and their cronies to permanent power, reducing political space for civil society or marginalized groups and fan new cycles of violence, as oil wealth has done in Nigeria. The fluid nature of complex inter-group grievances makes these waters exceptionally tricky to navigate, even for those firms with the willingness to recognize and act on the local drivers of conflict. Business operations can also exacerbate other conflict drivers, such as exclusion and marginalization, as investment or joint venture partners typically represent dominant societal groups.

More broadly, there is an inherent difficulty in ‘solving’ root causes of political violence. Businesses may not be the best actors to identify and address those, as their motivations can differ or even contradict those of other peacebuilding agents. Reflecting that reducing conflict alone is not necessarily peacebuilding (it can simply be suppression), firms must also pick winners and losers, and these tend to be pro-government, anti-insurgent actors due to corporate desires for security and market access. And even leaving conflict zones in order to ‘do no harm’ can leave a void for corporations of lower ethical inclination to fill. To wit, Talisman Oil was shamed out of the former Sudan after it was shamed for complicity with the Sudanese government in targeting non-muslims in South Sudan; this gap was filled by Indian firm ONGC Videsh, who was even less inclined to consider its local impact or join western-led peace initiatives.

Third, the harshest critics see deeper involvement of businesses in fragile conflict zones as neo-colonial exploitation. They warn that privileging business in the peace and development space will warp international agendas towards corporate interests and further marginalize the broader population from control over their own political futures. Beyond the simplistic ‘conflict for profit’ frame that some firms exploited in the 1990s, today’s projects like B4P are accused of being a new generation of corporate window-dressing to operate in contentious areas. These pro-business pushes are said to rest on spurious assumptions. Namely, that national actors care about and are invested in adherence to international standards; that links between norms, standards, and peacebuilding are clearly drawn; that international watchdogs have real teeth; that justice and transparency make peace in conflict-ridden societies; and, not least, that businesses are beacons of best practice on all of the above.

Practical issues have arisen as well. Firms are increasingly confronted with ethical dilemmas like roadblock economies, where checkpoint payments by businesses to rebels can worsen local conflict through the very mechanisms necessary to secure local market access. Evidence from Afghanistan, Congo, and Colombia indicate that business operations have made wars worse through these payoffs even as they promise that corporate presence will bring local development. Worse, what many businesses and INGOs might call ‘inclusive community empowerment’ can be labeled by local actors—especially in repressive regimes or ethnically divided societies—as enabling ‘dangerous resistance movements’ or ‘anti-nationalist.’ Further, these well-meaning initiatives can also create new conflict fissures by eroding local government capacity as its duties are farmed out to foreign entities. This ‘corporate paternalism’ harkens back to the colonial past and the United States a century ago when company towns asserted absolute control over goods, services, and even governance of local populations.

From Action to Impact: Taking Business and Peace Forward

Of course, most firms are well aware of how messy (and unprofitable) these ventures can be in practice. So why do they still want to expand their peacebuilding presence? New strategic incentives are at play, including the aspirational elements of how pro-peace actions support a visible, positive corporate culture, and the impression of a virtuous firm; the belief that a corporation can go beyond ‘responsibilities’ to a re-thinking the role of business in society that incentivizes peace action; and a more general CEO mindset that is about more than making money. These thrusts can come from shareholders, boards, or management training, and increasingly mandate business action to try to facilitate peace.

Moreover, IGOs and business scholars are already moving beyond CSR into political and diplomatic engagement realms. The United Nations has integrated business into its Responsibility to Protect and Responsibility While Protecting platforms, and perhaps no initiative epitomizes this shift better than the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (BAHR), the first global standard on how businesses should protect human rights. The belief is that if firms comply with this and other international rights principles, they will ipso facto contribute to peace—regardless of the fact that the initiatives themselves fall outside the scope of what most academics and practitioners call ‘peacebuilding.’ It may also be punitive, as ongoing UN sessions are working to draft a “legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” There remain major gaps between the public fanfare of businesses becoming signatories to BAHR frameworks and the complexity of actionable human rights guidance (or legitimate punitive threats), but deeper and more comprehensive business engagements into peace arenas continue to multiply.

But how businesses integrate peace action within their corporate structure is more complicated and institutional change to forward societal value has been hard to do.Interaction effects between large firms and their local subsidiaries on CSR and peace also matter. Our research on Heineken and its Bralima subsidiary in the Congo showed how HQ was vocal about their CSR goals, but pressured local staff to focus instead on raising profits and increasing market share. Still, with an increasing push on not if businesses should be involved, but how we can discover the right conditions for impact, international businesses in particular are primed to become more deeply involved in the double-edged sword of peace engagement.

Going forward, who gets to define what constitutes a ‘business-peace contribution’ may be the biggest predictor of how deep these interactions truly get. Firms argue that researchers need to quantify the costs and benefits for business to proactively improve upon the conditions of conflict that best facilitate involvement in peacebuilding, and need definable metrics for when they should and shouldn’t intervene. However, conflict triggers that spur firms to action often generate only development initiatives—positive outcomes MNCs pride themselves for—which are unlikely to generate peace or mitigate conflict. Ultimately, B4P might be laudable simply because it gets businesses to commit to ‘peace undefined,’ creating a space for NGOs and other stakeholders to then engage, contend, and expand what exactly is or ought to be at stake.

These developments portend a deep sense of urgency to better understand business-peace actions to allow for more conscientious guidance. Our research suggests that the most effective engagements do not arise from pre-conceived notions of which business actions promote peace, but require grounded fieldwork for each specific operational setting, making the concrete peace outcomes by different stakeholders explicit. Even the seemingly most positive, ‘win-win’ business-peace action, if implemented hastily, can have unintended consequences. While this undoubtedly makes it harder to operationalize peacebuilding for business, it is much more likely that long-term results will be more robust for the firm and of deeper value to the local communities who should always be regarded as the ultimate peacebuilders.