A general view of an open pit at Banro’s Twangiza mine in eastern Congo, on Sept. 28, 2011. (Tom Kirkwood/Reuters)

Over the past 10 years, the idea of “business for peace” has guided many policies in post-conflict contexts, such as the eastern Congo. Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have engaged big business, especially oil and industrial mining companies, as agents of development and peace.

“Business for peace” is the idea that multinational corporations, can, through their labor, supply chain and conflict-preventing activities, contribute to peacebuilding in conflict and post-conflict situations. With the exception of relevant sections of the Dodd-Frank Act, such engagement is mostly about promoting voluntary contributions by companies. These may range from companies serving as mediators between conflicting parties and teaching private and state security forces they work with how to prevent using violence and to respect human rights, to actively promoting conflict prevention, reconciliation and social justice initiatives in broader society. The Business for Peace Foundation in Oslo conferred its award for the fifth time to six business leaders this year, and the Enough project recently issued a report arguing that regulating how companies source minerals reduced funding of violence through minerals in the eastern Congo.

However, to what extent does business really build peace? First, most of the Business for Peace agenda favors voluntary engagement by multinational companies. While such initiatives work with companies who care about their public image or see it as an opportunity to generate a competitive advantage over others, they do not reach many other companies and are prone to “green/blue-washing,” that is being used for friendly statements about corporate social responsibility devoid of substance.

Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank stands out as a rare case of a legally binding obligation to make mineral supply chain transparent and conflict-free. Adopted in 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires all companies registered in the United States to show that the minerals that enter our phones and computers do not subsidize war. Although new European Union legislation on “conflict minerals” currently being debated is seen by some as overtaking the U.S. efforts, it has been criticized for remaining too vague.

For all the complications with its launch and the many mistakes made in how it has been launched and implemented so far (for more on this debate see here and here), if its proponents are right, Dodd-Frank demonstrates the difference a legal obligation can make in generating commitment from companies. Legal requirements affect all companies, even those with no interest in voluntary compliance. This is what corporate social responsibility initiatives based on positive incentives, peer pressure and socialization have a hard time achieving.

My recent research puts forward another reason for why we should be a little more cautious and reflexive about promoting multinational companies as agents for peace. It builds on research on large mining multinational corporations (MNCs) in eastern Congo, specifically on companies that, arguably, should be most likely to build peace according to the business for peace agenda. These are Canadian company Banro in South Kivu, which is the first company to have entered production phase in eastern Congo and object of many hopes for peacebuilding through business, and Anglo Gold Ashanti in Ituri. The latter has publicly committed to and promotes responsible security and human rights policies since a campaign against its complicity with armed groups in the past.

I show, first, that even companies that are most likely to engage with the business for peace agenda in fact do much less active peacebuilding than they are expected to by those promoting the agenda. Despite laudable efforts, MNCs’ achievements in actually making and building peace in eastern Congo are limited. To some extent this is – arguably – to be expected. No international organization, especially the United Nations mission in the country, has managed to achieve peace and development either. Yet also measured against the specific expectations of the Business for Peace agenda, they remain far behind. Neither engaged in mediating for active peace. Both companies aligned themselves with the strongest political and military actor on the ground, and shifted their alliance in accordance with changes on the ground.

The companies also remain caught up in hybrid security practices. ‘Hybrid practices’ means that norms of corporate social responsibility and human rights only guide some of companies’ practices – even of the staunchest supporters of these norms. Practitioners who work with MNCs on the ground – security officers, community managers and others – serve different expectations and follow different rationales and routines at the same time. They may do human rights training and engage communities in line with norms of corporate social responsibility. At the same time, they use violence to defend industrial mining enclaves and ensure stable working conditions; they repress contestation by drawing on clientele exchange and arrangements of indirect rule to ensure profits.

While AGA and Banro both commit to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, efforts to reduce the use of violence by the security forces they work with vary and their effectiveness is limited. At the same time, industrial mining operations have deprived tens of thousands of local people of livelihood opportunities without offering an alternative. For all these reasons we should be more skeptical and better aware of the limitations of the business for peace agenda.

More importantly, and second, my research shows that industrial mining companies are a trigger of social conflict around their sites. Rather than building peace, companies often cause new insecurity and conflict themselves (see also here). People are displaced from agricultural land and artisanal mining pits and left with few or no alternative livelihood options. Encouraging companies to build and strengthen conflict prevention and community engagement initiatives might hence reduce the harm they inflict on local residence in mining areas like Mongbwalu and Luhwindja in the Congo’s east. They can help reduce some of their negative externalities, such as human rights abuses by security forces they work with; also, providing new livelihood opportunities for some farmers and artisanal miners who lost theirs with the arrival of large-scale investors can make a difference. All the same, presenting these companies as “peacebuilders” makes it easy to effectively ignore their role in creating these same problems, conflict and social inequality. The reality is that companies’ violence-reducing and community engagement strategies coexist with practices that lead to insecurity and conflict.

Despite these failures and ambiguities, the business for peace agenda keeps promoting large-scale companies as developers and peacebuilders. My third point is that it is actively used by business and governments to legitimize their business activities; and to delegitimize alternative actors such as small-scale miners.

The problem is that it has the effect of supporting the concentration of mineral revenues in the hands of few (government, company) with little redistribution to ordinary citizens. It in fact comes at the expense of more decentralized business models that could provide more local livelihood opportunities. I thus argue that there is a need for more reflexivity.

We need to reflect more critically on the real-world implications of the “business for peace” agenda. Engaging business in peacebuilding is important. But existing voluntary initiatives do not only have their limitations. The business for peace discourse has a number of unintended consequences and negative effects that might outweigh the good that it does. Long-term, sustainable peace requires bottom-up, small-scale opportunities for making a living. That is something MNCs do not necessarily help to achieve.

Dr. Jana Hönke is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Edinburgh and works on business, security, transnational security governance and contestation. She is the author of “Business for Peace? The ambiguous role of ‘ethical’ mining companies and of “Transnational Companies and Security Governance. Hybrid Practices in a Postcolonial World.” The latter examines extractive industries’ role in transnational security governance building on cases from Sub-Saharan Africa from the 19th and 21st centuries.