BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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BSR Debate: Collaborative Initiatives: Accelerators or Diversions?

One-Hour Conversation Session / November 6, 2013


  • Christine Bader, Human Rights Advisor, BSR, Author, Girl Meets Oil: The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist.
  • Arvind Ganesan, Director, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch
  • Angie Farrag-Thibault, Associate Director, Transport and Logistics, BSR (Moderator)


  • Collaborative initiatives give organizations participating in them and engaged in the process a sense of ownership that ultimately brings credibility to what they are set to develop.

  • Collaborative initiatives are a good vehicle to set up standards, but often fail to ensure compliance among all the actors. Compliance continues to be driven by public exposure and greatly enhanced through regulatory intervention.

  • To develop a credible standard, it is important to ensure that the right stakeholders are involved in its creation—but it’s also important to set the bar high for membership in collaborative initiatives, to try to engage the most progressive members from the start, and to add more members as momentum develops.

Memorable Quotes

“If anything, collaborative initiatives, first and foremost, help educate everybody.” —Arvind Ganesan, Human Rights Watch

“Over time, if initiatives cannot enforce their own standards […] they will start collapsing under their own weight.” —Arvind Ganesan, Human Rights Watch

“Collaborative initiatives can be accelerators, [but it’s important to ask], what are you accelerating, and what is the goal?” —Christine Bader, BSR


Farrag-Thibault started by explaining the session’s focus on factors that make collaborative initiatives work: What allows them to be an accelerator for change versus distractions from the intended goals? Farrag-Thibault asked the panelists about their views on the progress they had achieved through collaborative initiatives in recent years.

First, Ganesan explained that collaborative initiatives have generally been a successful way for several organizations to come together to develop standards. However, when it comes to accountability and enforcing these standards, collaborative initiatives have been less effective. Then, taking the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights as an example, Bader explained that by making a standard like the Voluntary Principles available to individual companies, such initiatives can act as accelerators. Ganesan insisted that in the case of the Voluntary Principles, coming together helped the companies understand that there were additional perspectives that needed to be taken into account to find sustainable solutions on the issue of security.

Ganesan noted some of the shortcomings that collaborative initiatives might face: These initiatives have difficulties ensuring that companies outside the “club”—the group of organizations creating the standards—actually implement the standards as intended. Ganesan offered as an example the Kimberley Process for identifying and avoiding “conflict diamonds,” and noted that collaborative initiatives face difficulties evolving and keeping up with the problems that the world is facing; as a result, their standards can simply become obsolete.

Farrag-Thibault asked the panelists about the factors that bring credibility to the standards developed and whether non-multistakeholder initiatives can develop credible standards. Bader explained that, when developing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the robust multi-stakeholder process and sense of ownership it created among all the parties involved contributed to the Guiding Principles’ success. To develop a credible standard, it is important to ensure that everybody who is affected is involved in developing them, Ganesan added.

Bader addressed the question of engaging the right people in standards-development by explaining that collaborative initiatives usually struggle with setting the bar high for initiative members without deterring too many organizations from joining. In Ganesan’s opinion, collaborative initiatives work best when they set high standards and get the most progressive actors engaged from the beginning. This can ultimately have a ripple effect that brings other actors to join. However, Bader noted that what matters is not necessarily to get more actors to join the initiative, but to get them to use the standards developed.

Returning to the question of standards implementation and compliance, Bader explained that it is important for companies to institutionalize the standards internally. Using the example of the Voluntary Principles, she explained how companies have successfully integrated them into their contracts with governments, construction companies, and security firms, for instance.  Building on this, Ganesan insisted that internal accountability and leadership are among the factors that drive compliance.

Panelists then discussed the weakness of most collaborative initiatives: As a mechanism, they can be extremely cumbersome and resource-intensive to manage. The standards they developed will be implemented if they are useful for companies and participants, but the resources required from participants to govern the initiative can act as a deterrent, diverting attention and resources from the actual problems on the ground that those initiatives were set up to address in the first place.

Farrag-Thibault asked whether collaboration should be striving for stronger legal accountability. For Ganesan, that is the natural next step, as it ensures that everybody—within and outside the initiatives—is held accountable in the same way. Bader agreed that legal accountability can create a level playing field. However, she insisted that companies are mostly driven by the fact that the issues the standards are meant to address already present a tremendous risk to the business and are therefore important for them to address.

During the Q&A, a participant asked about measuring the effectiveness of collaborative initiatives, and the panelists agreed that this posed a challenge. Ganesan explained that developing metrics to assess the effectiveness of an initiative should be the next phase for initiatives that have already set up standards and adequate systems of governance with reporting and outcomes. However, he noted that issues such as human rights can be quite resistant to metrics. Bader, on the other hand, insisted that metrics should be impact-based rather than activity-based. In the human rights arena, it can be tremendously helpful to involve the right-holders in developing these metrics, she explained.

Ganesan answered another audience question by explaining that public exposure continues to be the driver toward standard-setting exercises that are at the core of collaborative initiatives. However, he also noted that there has not been any real regulatory momentum to developing mechanisms to protect human rights. Once groups develop standards, they have an interest in seeing them implemented. This, he explained, can constitute an incentive for regulatory intervention.

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