There is a scene in Ziad Doueiri’s classic film West Beirut when, as the civil war gets underway, the local bakery begins working overtime to feed the neighborhood's many hungry residents. It is a heartwarming subplot grounded in one of the war’s lesser-known realities: businesses supporting the surrounding communities during the height of the civil war. This altruistic aspect of business behavior has become an area of focus for Charlotte Karam, professor of organizational behavior at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, who believes bad behavior rather than decency has been the focus of attention in academic literature about business.
Indeed, much discussion of the intersection between business and human rights in the Arab world centers on abuse, particularly that committed by big business. “And for good reason, the neoliberal market is often obsessed with big business,” says Karam. Yet small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) account for the vast majority of economic activity in the region.
Karam points to “a natural social contract” that has emerged between local businesses and their communities in light of weak local institutions and lack of services. As a scholar-cumactivist, she is pushing for businesses to expand that contract and embrace their role as “civil society actors.” She has been calling for businesses to break away from “nepotism, sectarianism, and discrimination,” and to embrace a set of values in line with international human rights norms. “[Businesses] are at the table, along with NGOs, IGOs, and government when we are calling for, for example, the passage of a sexual harassment law.”
The idea that business should be more involved in the safeguarding of human rights has grown in popularity over the past decade, with the drafting of the UN guidelines on business and human rights being a significant step toward setting standards of behavior. And while Karam believes in setting international standards, she remains sensitive to the importance of nurturing the good in local business culture.
Middle East business “doesn’t need to exist in opposition to human rights at a large level.” Rather, it needs “to be studied and learned from,” such that prevailing international norms and the local culture can come into a more natural alignment.
Many businesses in the region are signatories to the UN Global Compact, a non-binding pact encouraging businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies. And many more still perform good works far from public view. “They are doing good, silently,” says Karam.
The MainGate, Summer 2019 Vol. XVII, No.3