6 Questions About Why Conflict Sensitivity Matters for Tech Companies

We often get the question “why conflict sensitivity?” and thought we should answer the 6 most pressing questions about why conflict sensitivity is critical for the tech industry. By adopting conflict sensitive business practices, tech companies can mitigate costly risks and enhance business opportunities that contribute to peace.

1. What is conflict?

“Conflict” is a broad term. Conflict arises when two or more parties:

  1. Believe that their interests are incompatible
  2. Express hostile attitudes towards each other
  3. Damage the other’s ability to pursue its interests.

Conflict does not always involve violence. There can be conflict without express violence. Violence is just one of the many ways that parties can respond to conflict.

Conflict can be seen in markets experiencing a broad range of issues, including human rights or civil rights abuses, deeply rooted community, racial or ethnic tensions, economic insecurity, or unjust governance–in the past, present or future.

Violent conflict can lead to a severe breakdown in social relationships. It can have destructive effects, including for infrastructure and the economy. It can also be very expensive for businesses doing business in the country. Most of the countries in the world are experiencing some form of conflict.

2. Why does conflict matter for business?

Business operations and conflict tend to operate within a cyclical, 2-way dynamic – they adversely impact each other.

A company’s presence is never neutral. Once a company enters a conflict-affected market, they are at risk of becoming an actor in the conflict. This risk is especially high for tech companies, given the prevalence and importance of technology in our communications and everyday lives.

How can tech companies become involved in conflict? There are many ways that tech can be a driver of conflict, including by:

  • Giving more voice to or empowering one conflict actor
  • Facilitating discrimination through language
  • Facilitating the spread of disinformation or rumors
  • Allowing one conflict actor access to data that others don’t have
  • Showing the location of resources or communities of one actor
  • Providing tech that contributes to repression or censorship.

Conflict is bad for business. When a company unwillingly or unknowingly causes or contributes to conflict, it can face a host of new and unforeseeable risks, such as:

  • Disrupted operations
  • Damaged reputation / loss of consumer trust
  • Loss of customers
  • Loss of investment
  • Costs (salaries, etc.) for responding to conflict.

3. What is conflict sensitivity?

Fortunately, there are some fairly straightforward and realizable objectives to ensure that companies are not contributing to conflict. Conflict sensitivity is a framework for helping companies operate responsibly in conflict-affected markets.

To be “conflict sensitive,” an organization should be able to:

  1. Understand the context in which it operates
  2. Understand the interaction between its activities and that context
  3. Take steps to minimize negative impacts of its operations.
  4. Take steps to maximize positive impacts of its operations for peace.

Companies can also take steps to do some good by reinforcing positive factors in society, reducing divisions and trying to capitalize on the positive impacts its technology has in that context. Going even further, companies can take positive action to support peacebuilding efforts at a local level.

4. How does conflict sensitivity relate to human rights?

Conflict sensitivity is closely related to human rights, but presents much higher stakes and requires a different set of considerations and, in particular, requires enhanced due diligence. UN Guiding Principle 23 notes that the risks of being complicit in human rights abuses committed by other actors is much higher and requires extra care. It recommends that companies doing business in conflict-affected markets take an “enhanced” approach to human rights due diligence.

5. What about Conflict Sensitivity for the Tech Industry?

The largest tech companies operate at a global scale with billions of users. At the same time, technology impacts our communities on a very local level. Technology is something that brings communities together, facilitates communication, and provides an opportunity for sharing knowledge and information at the speed of light.

The opportunities for technology to support peace are enormous—but so are the risks that it contribute to conflict. The world is increasingly coming to understand how seemingly innocuous technology can have unintended consequences for conflicts around the world.

Incorporating conflict sensitivity into business practices can be challenging for any businesses. Conflict-affected markets are unpredictable and can evolve rapidly. And technology evolves just as quickly. When it comes to conflict sensitivity, technology companies face particular challenges, such as complexity and scale. Even more so, technology companies have to carefully balance seemingly competing rights, such as the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. Tech companies operating in these contexts must be nimble enough to adjust to unpredictable changes and mitigate the risk of having a negative risk on the conflict.

The good news is that the tech industry has an inherent capacity for adaptability and flexibility and is particularly well-positioned to adopt conflict sensitive business practices. Industry leaders are accustomed to rapid development, pivoting, and disruption in response to rapidly evolving markets and changes in software. 

The nature of technology makes it nearly impossible for tech companies to avoid becoming involved in the conflict in the first place. This is why it is critical for the company to understand how that happens, and what they can do to mitigate harmful consequences.

6. So what should tech companies do?

There is a lot that companies can do to become more conflict sensitive and protect themselves from the risk of becoming involved in a conflict. In some ways, companies will need to make holistic changes to their policies and operations. More specifically, companies should adopt processes and structures, built on conflict-sensitive and rights respecting guidelines, that enable them to adapt in volatile markets.

But as a first step, companies must integrate conflict sensitivity into human rights due diligence processes. Conflict sensitivity informs and complements human rights due diligence.

In particular, companies should:

  1. Assess: identify specific conflict-related risks.
  2. Adjust: Understanding conflict-related risks should inform companies’ activities to prevent or address the conflict-related impact. Be nimble, and ready to react. 
  3. Act: Be proactive, and avoid negative consequences where possible. Adopt strategies to capitalize on tech’s potential to strengthen peace and social cohesion.

Get in touch to learn more about how JustPeace Labs can help you create a bespoke, holistic strategy.

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