When Malala Yousafzai collected her World’s Children’s Prize in Stockholm last month, she donated her $50,000 award from the United Nations to help rebuild schools in Gaza. “The needs are overwhelming – more than half of Gaza’s population is under 18 years of age. They want and deserve quality education, hope and real opportunities to build a future,” she said.
Malala’s money will help rebuild 83 schools damaged during the recent conflict, but the truth is Gaza is not alone. Across the Arab world, where more than 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25, there are millions of children with no access to education, often left with no option but to work to provide for their families. In fact, the illiteracy rate in the Arab world exceeds 19 percent, which means that nearly 97 million children do not know how to read and write, according to the Arab Organization for Education, Science and Culture.
These facts are regularly quoted but it wasn’t until I was asked to participate at the Global Child Forum taking place today in Dubai, an initiative by the Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden which aims to promote child rights across the world, that I really started to explore how closely children’s interests intersect with the work of business.
Children’s rights are much more than access to education. Businesses’ impact on children ranges from responsible marketing and advertising campaigns to equitable employment policies and practices, distribution methods, and meaningful dialogue with youth and their families.
With every third person in this world being a child under the age of 18, as a businessman I am compelled to take a deep look at my business and determine whether I truly have the interests of this major sector of our population in mind. Not because it would make me sleep better at night, or so I can write up a fancy report to tell everyone how ethical my business is, but simply because it makes business sense.
With this in mind, do businesses truly understand the impact they have on children, and how they relate to day-to-day operations? Do they have the tools and expertise necessary to safeguard children’s rights in a truly meaningful way? Do we have the right connections in place to enable businesses and governments to learn from each other’s experiences, and to work together to enhance our impact on children?
The Children’s Rights and Business Principles report being published today by the UNICEF, UN Global Compact and Save the Children takes a seemingly intricate subject, and makes its relevance to business abundantly clear. It identifies the different ways in which the decisions of a business can impact children’s rights and I encourage everyone involved in business to read it.
However awareness alone can only do so much. If we are really are going to produce lasting change, we need to ensure that businesses also have access to the tools, capabilities and expertise necessary to convert their commitment to children’s rights into positive action.
When we established the Pearl Initiative a few years ago in collaboration with the United Nations Office of partnerships, with a vision of creating a corporate culture of transparency and accountability across the Gulf Region, we always put the business case, and not just the ethical case, at the forefront of our activities, and do not wait for rules or regulations to guide our mission for instituting better corporate practices.
One of the most important aspects of our work, has been identifying locally-relevant and culturally smart solutions. This means avoiding a cookie-cutter approach to addressing these challenges, or importing solutions that may not necessarily resonate with our local business communities.
Similarly, in my opinion, an approach to imbedding children’s rights and interests into our business models in the Gulf Region requires a unique understanding of the social and business dynamics of this region. Certain facets of these dynamics may be more complex than in other parts of the world. However I also expect that the fact that families are such an integral part of our societal spheres across the region, should mean that we also have huge advantages over other parts of the world which will help activate these models.
Something else that we have come to appreciate is that positive reinforcement of best practice, or naming and faming as opposed to naming and shaming, is a crucial tool in helping to propagate such practice. This is especially important in relationship-based societies such as ours. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a single case study from this Region specific to good business practices and children’s rights. Believe me when I say these best practices do exist. We just need to go out and find them, which in turn will help inspire many others who want to demonstrate leadership in this crucial matter.
A further important matter that is definitely worth highlighting is the issue of trust. In a world where trust is paramount to a business’ social license to operate, it is becoming essential for businesses to be pro-active, and not re-active, about its good conduct. We have seen many examples of how a breakdown in this trust has had catastrophic effects on a business’ bottom line.
Whilst recovering from a case of corporate corruption, for example, may take the company years to rebuild that trust, and suffer a usually manageable loss made up of fines and opportunity cost, I would argue that a company can never recover from a breach of trust related to children’s rights. Simply put, as businesses we cannot afford to be lax about these efforts, as the unintended consequence of a bad business decision could well put us out of business altogether.
As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of our UAE and Ruler of Dubai once said; “Many leaders promise, we deliver.” As leaders from all sectors, we must collectively deliver on this promise.
As featured in Gulf News on 13th November 2014.