Monday, October 1, 2018

A final plea to #bizhumanrights Forum organisers

The programme for the 8th UN Forum on Business & Human Rights is up. For those who submitted proposals and haven't heard back, it appears this year is different and if the panel wasn't accepted, we're just not hearing anything.

But I do know that, as in past years, forum organisers are again being paired up and asked to create a coherent panel out of very different proposals. That process appears to be ongoing, so I am writing this as a final plea to panel organisers -- or a set of final please, really.

Please keep the following in mind:

1. Questions & answers should not be an afterthought. You are speaking to a well-informed audience. Some of the members of that audience might actually be more well-informed on the topic than you or your speaker.* With adult learners generally, but with informed adult learners specifically, lectures have limited benefits -- for you and them. For the learner, a general lecture (and if you have 5-8-12 speakers in 1.5 hours, you will only ever get a general lecture) will often fail to address their real questions and will leave then feeling dissatisfied and unimpressed with the content of your talk. The time for questions and answers (Q&A) allows for your idea or concept -- which will only ever be a sketch when you present it -- to be transferred in a meaningful way to the audience members. For you, the failure to include significant time for Q&A means you're missing an opportunity to get significant feedback on your approach from a well-informed audience who can help you more successfully operationalize your approach or idea.

This can be particularly difficult when multiple organisers are put together and everyone wants their speaker and issue out there. There are ways to address this. I was part of a multi-organiser panel a few years ago on human rights in conflict-affected areas. The way we handled this was to come up with one common question we could all answer while showcasing our own work and that fed into the larger issue. Then each speaker was given 5 minutes on the panel to answer this one question. The rest of the time was spent engaging with the audience on their particular questions. On another panel, we turned it into a bit of a debate, and then the audience weighed in with questions after our opening statements. These approaches allow for your comments to go beyond a superficial level and to really hit core issues you need to address.

Once you've set aside your Q&A, work backwards to see how long each speaker should get and how many speakers you can accommodate. But to make your ring-fencing of Q&A time meaningful, you need to be realistic about people speaking past their allotted time. Assume that each of your speakers will run over by 1-2 minutes (and if they are men of privilege, you should assume 5 minutes and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised if they stick to time).
*I will never forget the woman from a well-known business interest group who promoted her org's approach to investment & trade agreements as 'a higher standard' than existed elsewhere, but then couldn't answer a basic question about how their approach fell short of the expectations of the two major UN human rights treaty bodies. Needless to say, whenever that org speaks at a UN Forum -- and they get a lot of time at UN Forums -- I find myself highly skeptical of every claim they make.

2. Learn from the Universal Periodic Review and have some critical and different voices on your panel. If the first time you're hearing criticism for your new project or your approach is during the Q&A, you're doing something wrong. The Forum is not a PR stint; it's supposed to be an exchange of ideas between stakeholders. That exchange only comes if you allow it by ensuring those with different perspectives are on your panel. The UN has another routine activity - the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) - that allows for a good model for what we should be striving for. In the UPR, a state presents its understanding of its human rights record, and then it's questioned by 3 other states, known as the troika, who are responsible for running the review. While all the states on the troika all friendly-ish, their presence is intended to ensure that the record is really examined, rather than just accepted as it's presented. In addition to the troika, all other UN Member States can raise questions and give comments or recommendations for the state under review. The troika also ensures regional representations, so that's there's a variety of experiences, knowledge, cultures, and perspectives on the panel.

The purpose of the UPR, like the purpose of the Forum, is to ensure an exchange of ideas and best-practices. The critical voices & critical questions are important when you're trying to do that. You should embrace them rather than try to side-line them. Put a critical voice on your panel, someone who will probably disagree with the other panellists, but who is well-informed enough to really drive forward your practices.

3. If you don't like the UPR, learn from academia.

One of the best and most freeing things about being an academic is that you learn very early on that your idea is not perfect, it can almost always be improved, and even then it won't necessarily satisfy everyone. This means that we have to take on a lot of criticism and feedback -- in public, in front of other academics -- and then we sift through that feedback to figure out what we want to take on board and what we don't. This is part of the process of improving your thoughts and practices, and a failure to do this would harm even the most skilled academics (all of whom routinely seek critical perspectives anyhow).

4. Let rights-holders speak.

Last year was amazing in this regard. We had rights-holders and community organizers on almost every or every panel. This year, with the focus on what businesses can do better, there's a real risk that panel organisers will forget the rights-holders.

This would be an unforgivable mistake.

Nothing we do in this field should be done without ensuring the rights-holder is at the centre. Nothing. And that includes panel discussions. If the rights-holders aren't telling you what works and doesn't in their experience, you are missing the central pieces of your puzzle.

This year, supplementing my list of academic voices, I will be counting the panels that do not very clearly include rights-holders and I'll name them on this blog because that lack of inclusion raises important questions about the fundamental purpose of the panel.

5. Academic voices can help you.

Unsure of bringing on a critical voice? Academics can help you. With no skin in the game, we're generally willing and able to be appropriately critical. We also tend to have a wide-range of knowledge that goes beyond our publications, and we tend to be quite practical. As I said last year, I don't know a single academic in business & human rights that doesn't also work with states, NGOs, and businesses on translating the UNGPs into practice. So we (probably) won't ask you to rope the sun and the moon for us, but we will be able to give you specific tips on how to improve your thinking and your work.

And don't worry -- since part of our job is to find nice things to say about even the most awful submissions from students, we'll probably find something nice to say about your project or idea no matter what it is.

6. Don't forget about female academics.

When I say, "ask an academic," who does your mind immediately think of?

I can guess it's probably one of my very qualified and fine male academic colleagues. Part of the patriarchy is that when we think of 'experts', we think of men and male voices. Studies -- even in places like Denmark and Sweden -- show that men and women are listened to, heard, and respected differently. The only way to overcome that is to ensure women are given opportunities to serve and speak in their areas of expertise.

When thinking of your critical voices, and thinking of the academics to invite, please don't just go with the first person who comes to mind. Think seriously about who is an expert on the area you're addressing, consider whether there's someone whose name doesn't pop up immediately but who has the knowledge and critical perspective that you need. For your ease, here's the copy-and-paste of my list of women academics who weren't invited to speak last year but who would've made great panellists (with a few additions):

Justine Nolan (twitter: ), Nadia Bernaz (twitter: ), Mary Footer, Karin Buhmann, Nicola Jagers (twitter: @NicolaJagers, Joanne Bauer (twitter: @JoanneBauer), Erika George (twitter: @ProfErikaGeorge), Jena Martin (twitter: @JenaTMartin), Sara Seck (twitter: @SaraSeck) Chiara Macchi (twitter: ) Anil Yilmaz-Vastardis (twitter: Katerina Yiannibas (twitter: ) Ciara Hackett (twitter: @ciara_hackett), Samentha Goethals (twitter: ), Daniela Heerdt (), Charline Daelman, Dorothee Cambou, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, Basak Baglayan (twitter: @basakbc), Jelena Aparac, Dorothee Baumann-Pauly (twitter: @DoroBauPau), Clare Patton (@c_patton_) Flor Wegher Osci (twitter: @florwegher), Harpreet Kaur (@hkaur0304), Attiya Waris (@AttiyaWaris), Sabine Michalowski, Sabrina Rau, and Rachel Chambers, Bonita Meyersfeld, Andrea Saldarriaga, Andrea Shemberg.

For now, Anita Ramasastry (twitter: @ARamasastry) is (as is usual for me) excluded from my list of academic experts for the Forum only as she serves there in her capacity as a member of the UN Working Group. But the rest of the time, she's front and centre in this discussion!

My list is admittedly Western-centric, which is a serious problem and a failing on my own part to make connections outside of my immediate circle. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I would encourage you to think about non-Western, female academics as well (and please recommend their names to me so I can include them in future lists!).

Edited to add the following women scholars from Latin America and the Caribbean, with gratitude to Humberto Cantú Rivera (@HumbertoCantuR) for most of thes ones from Latin America and the Caribbean: Kathia Marti-Chenut (@kathiamc1); Camila Perruso (@camilaperruso); Claret Vargas (@claretmarcia); Carolina Olarte; Maria Laura Böhm; Ana Claudia Ruy Cardia (@mackenzie1870); Danielle Anne Pamplona.

I'd also add Vivian Ng, who is now based at Essex, and Aishah Bidin, from Malaysia, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Global Business & Human Rights Scholars Association. Humberto and I also serve on that Board (as does Anita), and I'll take this moment to encourage other scholars to join the Association as it's a valuable resource for exchanging scholarship.

I'll keep adding names as they're suggested to me by people I respect and trust. I should have remembered both Laura Bernal-Bermudez and Manoela Roland on my own - they're both fantastic so sincere apologies to both for leaving them off the initial list. Thanks to Daniel Marín López (@marintencionado) of Dejusticia for the reminder, and for highlighting the work of the wonderful Fernanda Hopenhaym (@fernanda_ho) of PODER (@ProjectPODER), which, like Dejusticia, is a bit of a hybrid NGO-think-tank with high quality research.

Think about who amongst this list might have the specializations that you need and insight that can push you forward.

(And yes, I will again be counting the number of women academic speakers when we have a list of speakers.)

That's all I have in terms of requests for now. The programme looks interesting. I've started to mark my preferences (apparently we can 'log in', click our preferences and sync our choices to our calendars... if you trust technology enough for that).