At its up-coming regional meeting in Nay Pyi Daw, the World Economic Forum will consider how to inspire inclusive transformation in Myanmar.  The first session on this topic will ask the question “how can businesses balance shareholder and stakeholder interests to partner in Myanmar’s growth agenda?”

Shareholders and stakeholders may not always have the same views or priorities regarding the appropriate role of business in Myanmar. Companies will need to take account of these varying interests so that, together, they contribute to Myanmar’s growth.  To do this, companies will first need to take the time to understand the stakeholder’s viewpoint.

Shift – a non-profit created to promote the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (and of which both John Ruggie and I are Board members) – have just contributed to this area.  Its new publication, “Conducting Meaningful Stakeholder Consultation in Myanmar”, provides an overview of the views and expectations of civil society stakeholders in Myanmar with regard to the role of business.

Shift’s on-the-ground research highlights that Burmese stakeholders have a very clear vision of the important role companies can play in Myanmar.  They would like business to provide labor opportunities and build their skills as workers, which in time will enable them to compete with their neighbors in surrounding ASEAN countries.  They hope that this increased access to jobs will in turn enable them to move out of poverty and into the middle class.  Some stakeholders see the role of business extending to assist Myanmar on its path of inclusive transformation.  They note that since companies will now have a stake in Myanmar’s economy, they should also play a role in strengthening the ongoing democratic process.

At a minimum, stakeholders interviewed by Shift viewed companies as playing a crucial role in respecting and promoting international standards of responsible business conduct, which were deemed to go above and beyond current legal requirements.  This included, for instance, taking care not to spur additional land grabbing, perpetuate low labor standards and contribute to environmental degradation.  This also included taking the time to understand the complexities of the situation on the ground, in particular in the ethnic states where most of Myanmar’s natural resources are located, and tailor business operations accordingly.  Particularly when operating in challenging contexts such as these, stakeholder consultation can provide critical input into a company’s broader risk management processes, enabling the company to identify – and prevent or mitigate – human rights risks to affected individuals and communities that it would be unlikely to pick up on its own.

Burmese stakeholders also had strong views of how they expected companies to engage, which included proceeding with genuine, meaningful consultation at the grassroots level.  Their recommendations included (i) educating all potentially affected communities about the company’s planned operations – before the business project is agreed upon – in a public education phase, (ii) engaging with communities in an early public dialogue to describe the proposed business activities and gather feedback, and (iii) integrating the feedback received into the terms of the business activities.  As the Guiding Principles make clear, meaningful consultation with affected stakeholders as part of human rights due diligence is particularly important during the process of assessing actual and potential impacts and in tracking the company’s performance.

These recommendations are described in full in Shift’s report Conducting Meaningful Stakeholder Consultation in Myanmar.  This report will also be discussed at the World Economic Forum workshop on business and human rights as part of the Investors’ Summit in Nay Pyi Daw on June 5, 2013.  By integrating affected stakeholder views into their decision-making and actions, companies will be better able to effectively manage their human rights impacts, which can in turn assist the Government of Myanmar in pursuing a growth agenda founded on respect for human rights.

Author: Alexandra Guáqueta a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Human Rights

 A woman takes a break from work at a brick factory in Myanmar REUTERS/Damir Sagolj