In today’s global economy, corporate conduct abroad is governed by a range of frameworks, guidelines and principles – voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments at the corporate level, industry-wide and multi-stakeholder initiatives, and even in the requirements of multilateral bodies. But what happens when stakeholders – communities, environmental or human rights NGOs, and other advocates – make claims that they are negatively impacted because companies are not living up to those commitments? Unfortunately, complaints often lead to extended court cases that provide limited relief. Worse, failure to resolve complaints can lead to violent conflicts between companies and communities. Today’s global CSR discourse is moving beyond the need for credible reporting on CSR compliance, toward a focus on the question of effective remedies. In other words, remedies that actually address and attempt to resolve the fundamental sources of conflict between corporations and stakeholders.

Working under a UN mandate, John Ruggie and his team at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative (CSRI) have brought increased attention to this question of effective remedy. The three-pillared ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy’ framework they have put forward places substantial emphasis on the need to ensure access to effective judicial and non-judicial remedies – so that those who believe they have been negatively affected by corporate conduct have somewhere to turn for redress.

To this end, CBI and CSRI have been jointly exploring the role that mediation and other problem-solving approaches can play in resolving disputes over business impacts on society. Mediation, here, refers not only to traditional concepts of mediating specific complaints, but includes the broader goal of proactively helping corporations and communities forge better relationships through the assistance of a neutral third party. From our own experiences throughout the world, we’ve seen the positive role that mediation can play in helping to resolve the fundamental sources of conflict and build stronger, more constructive relationships between companies and communities.

Through a joint research and design project, we have been interviewing global corporate and NGO advocacy leaders, to better understand what kinds of mediation resources at the international level would support more effective resolution of disputes at the local level. The ultimate goal of the research is to put forward a set of design recommendations for promoting and supporting the expanded use of mediation in global CSR-related disputes.

Many previous efforts to design international CSR remedies have fallen short on implementation because they lacked credibility among one or more key constituents. We know from our own field experience that, to be effective, any mediation resources need to be perceived as credible in the eyes of all potential users. The corporations, communities and NGOs need to be involved in the design of any CSR mediation resources.

Case in point, CBI and CSRI had originally planned to gain an understanding of community-level perspectives by interviewing community advocates and civil society leaders. However, in these interviews, community advocates stressed the need to go one level deeper and directly approach community members. In response, a second phase of research has been added to interview community-level stakeholders. To reach the local level, we are leveraging a global network of partner organizations – a combination of NGOs active in the CSR and public dispute resolution fields in: Argentina, Center for Human Rights and Environment; India, MetaCulture; Niger Delta, Africa Center for Corporate Responsibility; Peru, Futuro Sostenible; Philippines, Ateneo School of Government; and South Africa, Africa Institute of Corporate Citizenship

Our research is currently underway and expected to conclude in December 2010.