When I was a kid I broke a big ceramic elephant at my best friend’s house. We were roughhousing, hopping from couch to couch, and I landed on one side of the coffee table and launched the elephant upward from the other. It hit the ground so hard the little shards skidded all the way to the kitchen.
As soon as it happened, my friend knew he was in trouble. The statue was priceless. His parents bought it in Thailand on their honeymoon, had kept it with them through college, careers, new cities, two kids. They had told him, over and over, to be careful around it, to move slowly, to touch it only to keep it clean.
When they got home, they were furious. They pointed out how stupid we had been, how reckless. They grounded him on the spot.
Then they called my parents. They told them everything—Thailand, priceless, reckless—but they couldn’t punish me themselves. After all, I wasn’t their kid.
My own parents, when I got home, were irritated and embarrassed. But they didn’t punish me either. After all, it wasn’t their elephant.
This week I have an article in Foreign Policy about what I used to do for a living. It takes place, mostly, at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, the great big NGO jamboree I attended every year from 2010 to 2015.
The characters in it are my colleagues and friends, people who got into human rights for the same reasons I did. They have given their youth and their weekends and their anger to solving the problems of the world. They have lost sleep over the suffering of people they’ve never met. I was lucky to spend a decade knowing them, and my disagreements about the way that they—we—work are about the systems we’re part of, not the individuals who populate them.
In other words, I hope that my article is good. But more so, I hope that it is fair.
One of my clearest memories of the Forum is from 2010, the first year I attended, the first time it took place. It was a panel discussion, something about the extractive industry in South America. When it was over a human rights activist, wearing a wool parka in a room full of suits, stood up and started speaking in Spanish.
He named people he knew, friends, who were killed and imprisoned for protesting mining companies in Bolivia. He talked and talked—Allende, banana republics, NAFTA—his passion galloping faster than his voice. The interpreter, struggling to keep up, kept coming back to the word “irreconcilable.” Businesses exist to make money. Communities exist to take care of their members. Irreconcilable. The room squirmed. When he stopped, there was a rustle as we all removed our headsets.
“OK,” the panel chair said. “Anyone else have a comment?”
If there is one thing I took away from the Forum, one lesson I learned over and over, it is that this shit is complicated.
Take Syngenta. Thirty years ago, the company had a problem. It was the world’s leading pesticide manufacturer, and poor farmers in Asia and Africa were using Paraquat, one of its best-selling products, to kill themselves. In 1980, a study found that in Malaysia alone, more than 1,000 people had killed themselves by drinking pesticides in just four years. International NGOs and, more relevantly, regulators were starting to get interested.
As the trickle of bad publicity became a flood, Syngenta decided to update its recipe for Paraquat. It made the pesticide bright blue so no one would drink it accidentally. It added an “evacuation agent” to make them vomit if they swallowed more than a few drops. The company even added an enzyme to make the pesticide break down in the stomach, so less of it would be absorbed by any humans it got inside.
Every company, in every country, has complicities like this. In India, people use GE ultrasound machines to abort female babies. In China, where most of the donated organs come from executed prisoners, activists are asking pharmaceutical companies to stop distributing anti-rejection drugs. In 2013, UK chemical companies found out their products were being used for lethal injections in Arkansas.
I don’t know what comes after this lesson, what each company’s equivalent of dying its product bright blue will be. I only know that once you start looking, start asking companies how thy improve or degrade the countries where they operate, you will find horrors you did not expect.
After the Bolivian guy in the parka sat down and the panel finished and we all filed out, I asked the head of government relations for a mining company what he thought of the speech.
“I actually agree with him,” he said. “Somebody’s got to give up something.”
“So compromise doesn’t mean everybody wins, but everybody loses?” I said.
“This is the world we’ve got,” he says. “People aren’t going to stop buying oil, or diamonds, or sneakers. If my company pulls out of Bolivia on Monday, the Chinese will be there on Tuesday, taking rocks out of the ground same as us. Only they won’t even be talking to that guy, they’ll just be telling the government to move him aside.”
I heard this argument a lot at the Forum over the years. If western multinationals weren’t operating in Bolivia and Burma, Somalia and Sudan, that just leaves those countries open to the Russians and the Chinese and the Taiwanese (“who are way worse than the Chinese,” I remember an an apparel guy telling me).
Philosophically speaking, this is incoherent. As the head of a labor NGO put it to me, “It’s like saying, ‘I have to beat my wife because if I stop, the guy next door will come and beat her harder.'”
But philosophy is not reality. Poor countries do not choose between selling their land to an oil company and keeping it untouched. They choose between Exxon and Petrobras, Shell and Gazprom. They can have western companies, which have shareholders to please and reputations to uphold, or they can have government-backed companies from the developing world, which do not.
I told the mining dude this reminded me of an old Richard Pryor routine. When he misbehaved, his grandmother would make him go outside and choose the branch that she would beat him with. Pick one that’s too thick, and it’ll hurt more. Pick one too thin, and she would beat him, then make him go outside for a thicker one and beat him again.
“I used to work at Amnesty,” he said. “I took this job because I think I can do more good inside the system than out of it.”
“So have you?” I asked.
“My company isn’t perfect,” he said. “But we pay our workers on time, we talk to communities before we start mining and we refuse to pay bribes. If that guy really wants his country to get better, he shouldn’t be asking Western multinationals to leave. He should be asking us to stay.”
I’ve been telling that elephant story at conferences for years. It is, with surprisingly few modifications, exactly how the world regulates international companies.
Let’s say a German company sets up a shoe factory in Lesotho. It forces its employees to work seven days a week, dumps waste into the river out back, sends security guards to harass the neighbors who complain. If it did these things in Germany, its own government would take it to court. In Lesotho, though, the government doesn’t have labor inspectors, its courts are corrupt and its politicians worry that punishing this one company will chase others like it to the poorer, more desperate one a few clicks north.
Germany, for its part, can’t really punish the company either. It regulates what happens in Germany, not what happens in Lesotho. Its own laws do not apply there and so neither, in the end, do its values. The workers, the river, the neighbors, they are not Germany’s.
And so: This company, between one government that can’t levy a punishment and another that won’t, gets away with actions it could never carry out at home.
The UN jargon for this is “the governance gap.” It’s the reason the UN Forum, and my former field, was invented. It is why I went to Geneva every year for five, and why I stayed in Copenhagen and Berlin for eleven.
I don’t know if anything I did in my career was effective at closing it. Last time I told the elephant story I was giving a training in Zambia and one of the participants asked, “Wait, so who are your parents in that metaphor? Who truly has the power to punish these companies?”
I didn’t have an answer. I hope someday I will.