When Politicians Struggle to Find a Pathway to Peace, Business Must Step It Up

In this Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 photo, smoke rises over the new terminal of Donetsk airport in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. Russ
In this Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015 photo, smoke rises over the new terminal of Donetsk airport in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists announced Thursday they had captured the shattered remains of the Donetsk airport terminal and plan to claw back more territory, further dashing hopes for a lasting peace agreement. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

It's hard to disagree that with great power comes great responsibility. And, in today's world, much of the power resides with global business. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Davos. Last week, I took part in a special session of the WEF, which was designed to bring business elites from Ukraine, Russia, Europe and the rest of the world together in search of a solution for today's impasse in a political dialogue amidst rapidly deteriorating situation in Eastern Ukraine.

To be frank, the session did not meet my expectations. Regrettably, even the most programmatic business people struggled to find any common ground against the backdrop of increasing violence and mounting death toll. It is indeed a huge undertaking for business to step up when politicians can't seem to find the pathway to peace, but that is exactly why they must try!

Business alone can't resolve the conflict, our political leaders and diplomats must remain in the driver's seat. Transfer responsibility to a wrong party would be unconstructive. However, the role that private sector can play must not be underestimated, and there are a few areas where the global business community could act now:

Acknowledge the problem and speak out.

When recent shelling in Mariupol claimed lives of more than 30 civilians, including two children, how can anyone remain silent? I would be first to advocate that business must stay out of politics. There is no need for business to take sides or point fingers, but dead silence is equally indefensible. Every responsible businessperson must speak out for peace and must condemn violence. Joining the initiative of Richard Branson or one taken by WEF or launching a new effort is the very least one must do. When business speaks out publicly, politicians often listen. It is clearly of mutual interest for Ukrainian and Russian, as well as global business community to stop the war, and the more voices join in the louder is the message.

Contribute to the dialog.

We must learn from history and leverage the experience of such initiatives as Consultative Business Movement in South Africa or the Group of Seven in Northern Ireland. As a responsible global actor, business must mobilize resources, including the time commitment from the CEOs, to keep open channels of communication. If the situation does not improve, how will it affect your business? What is the impact on your investment strategy? Those messages have to be communicated to give better context for decision-making by politicians and provide stronger incentives in their search for peaceful resolution.

Provide humanitarian aid and contribute to private-public collaboration Words alone are not enough to bring relief to those in a conflict zone, and here again, business has a responsibility and an opportunity to show leadership by providing humanitarian aid. We must find ways to alleviate human suffering and stay united in our support of the innocent victims regardless of our own views on the origins of the conflict or parties responsible. Investing in humanitarian support you will invest in the reconciliation after the war.

Offer analytical support

The Group of Seven in Northern Ireland was instrumental in articulating the arguments for peace. A quasi think-tank was formed that gathered information on the cost of war and its impact on business. Today, the economic consequences suffered by business in both Russia and Ukraine range from access to markets, reputational damage, sanctions that hamper companies' ability to borrow, credit downgrades, loss of competitiveness, etc. Continued communication around the direct and ancillary costs of conflict, especially coming from business, will be instrumental in de-escalating tensions.

Lastly, little can be achieved by Russian and Ukrainian business people alone without strong engagement and backing from the global community. Given the ever-growing divide of how the situation in Eastern Ukraine is understood in Moscow and in Kyiv, my appeal is to all concerned business leaders to join the conversation and empower your Russian and Ukrainian peers to stay the course and maintain whatever bridges still remain. We must leverage all informal channels and establish a constructive dialogue between top business leaders and the politicians. If business continues to talk and search for a solution, they can show the way for politicians to do the same.