My Favourite Souvenir from Geneva: Networking at the fifth UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

By Theresa

My second visit to a UN Forum on Business and Human Rights (UNBHR) has again provided me with lots of food for thought. This post is dedicated, however, to my best souvenir from the 2016 Forum: great networking and valuable hints and advice.

“Leadership and Leverage”

“Leadership and Leverage: Embedding human rights in the rules and relationships that drive the global economy” was the topic of the Forum which took place 14 – 16 November 2016. In 2016, the international business and human rights movement has further gained momentum. For instance, the number of registered participants increased from 2,300 in 2015 to 2,500. 55 percent of the 2,500 people categorised themselves as women and 45 percent as men. According to the Forum organisers, they were successful in engaging more businesses: 24 percent of the 2,500 individuals registered as belonging to business enterprises, business/industry associations, consultancies and law firms. Civil society organisations, trade unions, indigenous peoples groups and similar activists represented the greatest stakeholder group of 30 percent. Academics came third with universities sending 300 people. They were followed by 350 state representatives and 175 individuals belonging to UN and intergovernmental organizations. My personal conversations and observations – sometimes panel moderators asked the audience to raise their hands to show adherence to different categories – support this statistic.

Since this post does not discuss the food for thought provided by the events at the Forum, I refer you to these great articles: Larry Catá Backer has written about the Forum debates in 2016 and given his critical suggestions to render the Forum even better. For another text with suggestions for future Forums, read Tara Van Ho’s contribution. If you have less time for both general overview and a critical input, read this article by James Harrison from Lacuna Magazine. General information about the UNBHR can be found in my post on the 2015 Forum and the official Forum webpage.

Crucial Networking Space in Geneva…

It is usually a great comfort when I can simply agree with what I have written in the past. Nevertheless, there is a sting attached to the statement ‘I can only underline even more now than a year ago how crucial the UNBHR is for networking’. The sting stems from the fact that as a newcomer starting a career in business and human rights in Germany networking is, to phrase it immensely euphemistically, special.

 This is my idea of a great network:

Reality looks slightly different. Before I share anecdotes with you to exemplify special, let me clarify: there are many great people working in the wide and vast field of business and human rights. I keep meeting great people who give me crucial questions to consider, send wonderful pep talk emails before job interviews and colleagues at heart who introduce me to a central person for that crucial two up to three minute chat to finally clarify a burning question. That being said none of these people are based in Berlin, most of them do not hold German citizenship, and many of them only joined Business and Human Rights after a prior career in other areas.

….After Endless Arrangements in Berlin

My first job at a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) in alternative trade led me to Berlin in September 2015. I came with the idea in mind created during my first LLM in Human Rights law that human rights folks stick together. Human rights work is work against all odds, successes are as rare as are paid positions. When I returned from abroad and took on my very first job in Germany, I knew that I have had little to no knowledge about the human rights networks in Germany and about whether a business and human rights network actually existed. Seeing the same 20 up to 30 people return to similarly-themed events made it apparent that there must be some form of business and human rights network in Berlin. I set out to contact people. Some replied to email and Facebook requests. “Yippieh!”, I thought. “Finally, somebody who thinks our subject is important enough to meet with people they do not yet know.” They agreed to meet. Then the real work started: endless negotiations via email, sometimes mixed with text and/or Facebook messages. Polite negotiations of weeks, days, exact hour and place. The feeling to negotiate with immensely busy people dawned on me. When I told my friends, there were always one or two people suggesting that my email/text message/facebook message conversation partner could not possibly be so busy, but lacked time-management skills.

Then, on the day, there was the sudden cancellation. The current record holder cancelled one hour before we were supposed to meet by sending a text from France (“Sorry, won’t make it because I am still in France”). I only received the message as a reaction to an apology from me explaining that I was running late due to an earlier appointment. I cannot shake the feeling that this person must have noticed earlier that s/he was not going to be in the country in time…

If you think that this is the end of the story, you are wrong. The whole arrangement process for a meet-up must have been an immense pleasure to some of my conversation partners. At least that was my optimistic understanding at the beginning. I experienced several cases where my conversation partner insisted on finding an alternative date and place – only to suddenly disappear mid-way. In retrospective, I think they were hoping to wear me out so that I would stop replying,  and that I would finally understand that there will never be a meeting. These no-networking experiences were accumulated over an 11-month period with at least 10 Berlin-based people who are not all strictly working on Business and Human Rights (as ‘human rights’ taught in UK law schools).

A recent example occurred in Geneva when I shared the synthesis of an event with a Berlin-based business and human rights person with at least 5 years experience. At the event, one of the speakers stated that human rights work at times can be very lonely, thus requiring all of us to be supportive of each other like a family. My conversation partner wholeheartedly agreed with this speech and also complained about personal experiences of working in an environment without peer support. I enquired whether s/he also lives in Berlin. When this was met in the affirmative, I suggested living the spirit of this speech by meeting up. No other question could have been worse than mine. My conversation partner suddenly looked very uncomfortable. Since the panel which we both happened to attend was about to start, I had a reason to excuse myself. After the panel I could not re-find the person. I have not seen him/her since. I would not share this experience with you, if I were not certain that the most efficient way to ensure that I will not be in touch with a Berlin-based business and human rights person is after suggesting a meet up (yes, this sentence contains sarcasm).

Baby Movements Need Networking

After a year of experiencing this kind of special networking, I cannot but conclude: Business and Human Rights networking in Germany sucks.

I used the UNBHR in Geneva to discuss my experience with colleagues from other countries to find out why it sucks so much. The hypothesis with the strongest support from evidence runs as follows: ‘networking in Berlin is (almost?) exclusively based on reciprocity’. People carry the attitude ‘I only meet with people who can provide me with immediate value’. This excludes anyone who cannot offer insights in institutions, exchange knowledge about upcoming job openings or signpost where to find valuable resources. If you are not part of the group, it is extremely difficult to get in – if you do not happen to land one of the rare jobs. These positions extremely difficult to get, especially if you did not have the right resources, did not know the right institutions to apply for internships three years ago or simply did not hear about that crucial job opening.

Presenting the Baby: the German Business and Human Rights Movement

Getting the necessary input for this hypothesis has already made the UNBHR 2016 worthwhile. It proved to be even more useful in counter-balancing my absent access to informal knowledge. In order to explain this, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that for most of its aspects, the field of business and human rights in Germany is still very young.

In Germany, human rights usually form part of the higher studies of lawyers. You cannot study them in a specialised LLM as offered by British universities. Many companies are very progressive regarding environmentally-conscious CSR, but have never heard about the UN Guiding Principles. At the current state of my knowledge, there is one German company paying a corporate responsibility manager who has a human rights degree and works on human rights issues. Generally speaking, human rights are regarded as a matter of state entities and civil society.

If you are a Business and Human Rights graduate with a burning passion for establishing human rights processes in a company, job hunting requires a thorough market analysis. I happen to be this kind of business and human rights graduate. It is against this backdrop that informal networks play a key role for me. As a newcomer to the scene, I depend on the good-will and vision of those already established to invest their time and energy. Due to the infancy of business and human rights in Germany, almost all of the individuals I dare to call ‘established’ work for government-sponsored and/or donation-based civil society, government-financed entities to deal with civil society in the field and interact with companies, and state entities themselves.

 Why Invest In Networking with Novices?

Since we are talking about business and human rights, I argue that my private problem contains a greater political dimension. There are at least three reasons why everyone who is part of the German business and human rights scene, but refuses to engage in networking with people who cannot immediately reciprocate is not doing the movement a favour:

#1 Requiring Perseverance, not Performance

If you do not support a newcomer, s/he is left alone in the current structure. Regarding human rights jobs, both NGOs and government entities do not try to compete with companies’ structural support for university students and graduates – and with support I mean more than writing references!

The charity sector is particularly known for having mastered the exploitation of its workforce which is focused on ‘helping others’. NGOs have a great structural advantage over companies: people work there because they have strong moral and strong intrinsic motivation. ‘Self-exploitation’ is the key word here. But even if you are willing to exploit yourself, it is very difficult to be allowed to enter this workforce. It is singing old songs to criticise that civil society organisations are structured to base their work to a great part on unpaid or poorly paid staff. Usually you have to work several years under these conditions before being able to be considered for positions where you earn enough to cover all of your expenses.


Banksy in Boston © Chris Devers

Organisations get their structure from the people who work within, especially from senior staff and the board. They set the priorities. They decide whether they favour volunteers who are willing to persevere despite disincentives over people who want to perform and need to be paid for it.

#2 Losing People to ‘The Wrong Side’

A great number of German business and human rights practitioners I have worked with seem to hold very dear to their heart a particular idea: working on these issues in a NGO is morally superior to working in a company. Some are even of the opinion that companies by their very actions are morally wrong. While this may be very comprehensible in concrete cases, this attitude is utterly useless if you are interested in changing companies.

One of my current findings stipulates that if you want to learn a lot and fast about how companies are run, and where there is potential to integrate human rights consideration, you must work in a company. I discussed this finding with NGO staff working on business and human rights. They agree with my finding. They know that good campaigning must have change management as one of its foundations: thinking further than the change desired, considering potential side-effects of a campaign, anticipating the conduct of different target actors. My argument runs along the same lines: if we want to understand enough to get our German business and human rights movement to gain momentum, more  hands-on information and practical skills are needed.

 #3 Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Based on the UN Guiding Principles, business and human rights practitioners and activists are constantly demanding that companies leave their comfort zone. We call on them to consider taking on new responsibilities with sometimes unpredictable side-effects and we ask them to shoulder this risk financially. Especially large companies are asked to use their leverage and be a leader, for instance by demanding from their suppliers to change production processes to better respect human rights.

It is only consistent to act as we preach. Larry Catá Backer phrased it beautifully in his post on the 2016 UNBHR when he spoke about blind spots which the Forum is yet to cover:

“It may well be time to consider the extent of civil society’s own responsibility to respect human rights in its own internal operations ans [sic] in its interactions with states and enterprises under the UNGP.[originally in italics by the author]

Besides this moral and pedagogical argument, there is a plain reason to engage with novices: If you think that we need changes in business and human rights, you know that the current number of practitioners is insufficient to create that change. We need more people to work on it.

Take responsibility for your part. Every single business and human rights practitioner and activist has some leverage to share helpful information with newcomers. I am not asking for individuals to publicly denounce the implicit consensus that whoever wants to work in Business and Human Rights has to make it on their own. Everyone who takes a little time for a novice is a silent leader employing his/her leverage for change. Sometimes three minutes to answer precise questions are enough for somebody who lacks information which appear more than basic to you. At other times this means replying to an email request apologising that you do not have time for a coffee chat – instead of wasting minutes which will finally amount to hours arranging a meeting which you know you cannot attend. You can still praise novices – yes, I know praise is almost entirely absent from German culture – for their interest and, thus, encourage them in their work. Sometimes using your leverage signifies sign-posting the inquiring newcomer to an event, a conference or workshop held by an institution they may not know about.

How I Contribute To a Growing Business and Human Rights Movement in Germany

1 – I strive to work for a company open to include human rights in their operations. To this end, I currently research companies which may potentially be interested in hiring somebody with two law master degrees in human rights law and corporate governance. Yes, this is self-interested. But is also helpful to the movement (cf. #2 above).

2 – I practice time-management and get ever so better in delivering on my promises, getting and staying in touch with people.

3 – I share my research findings with people who contact me over a cup of coffee and, like in this post, on Bizolutioners. Also, I forward job ads and information on events and conferences to people I think may be interested.

4 – I use my well-managed time to personally thank all those amazing people who have inspired, challenged and contributed to my journey as a business and human rights person.

5 – If you email us your funniest no-networking anecdote and/or want to be in touch to share experiences and information, I will reply (and publish the anecdote if permitted).

6 – And last, but not least: I continue advertising the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights as a great annual venue to engage in networking and ascertain information which may usually be out of your reach.


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