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Summary of Annual Learning Forum Meeting

2003-01-24 

The annual Global Compact Learning Forum Meeting, which was held in Berlin from 11-13 December 2002, had three objectives: i) sharing and discussing good practices of corporate behavior around the nine principles, ii) identifying knowledge and learning gaps; and iii) identifying possible topics for the 2003 Global Compact Policy Dialogues.
The meeting convened more then 200 participants from all over the world. During the two-day meeting, representatives from over 100 companies, labour, international civil society organizations, leading business schools and universities as well as governments and UN agencies focused on issues related to the Global Compact’s nine principles and transparency.

HIV/AIDS in the Workplace: There was an overall consensus that more can and should be done to fight HIV/AIDS and its consequences in the workplace. The ILO code of conduct on HIV/AIDS at the workplace was widely supported by participants. However, there was agreement that greater efforts are needed to distribute the code (documented in an existing training manual) to companies, subsidiaries and plants. One overriding question focused on what areas the workplace activities have been most effective in the fight against HIV/AIDS: education, treatment, prevention, stigma? Participants raised concerns about the increasing gap between workers and their communities vis-à-vis health-care coverage. Companies expressed the need for further knowledge on issues such as: How to develop a policy, engage workers and management, and mobilize communities? How to strengthen the public-sector capacity to take on HIV treatment? What public-private partnerships have been successful?

Cross Border Supply Chain Management: The working group on cross border supply chain management discussed the need for common binding standards and streamlining of auditing procedures. The concept of “do no harm” was transformed into the concept of “do good”. Also, participants proposed the sharing of examples of bad practices as they can offer significant value in a learning context. Participants asked for more clarity on and understanding of the principle “compliance with human rights”. A proposal was made to analyze the effectiveness of different approaches such as partnerships, financial incentives and trainings. The question was raised on how far responsibility of various supply chains stretches. Participants agreed that ending a relationship with a supply chain partner in the event that problems are identified is not the right way forward. Rather, joint efforts should be made to find solutions. In addition, it is important that the public have an understanding that such an approach entails a process of change and improvement. The participants proposed to continue working within the Global Compact on these issues.

From Principles to Practice: This working group discussed the experiences and problems of integrating the nine principles into core business operations. Participants were unclear about how the human rights principles should be implemented at operational level. The definition of “second generation human rights issues” was the subject of discussions. It was proposed to better define and elaborate the exact meaning and implications of those principles for company conducts. The following questions were raised and remained unanswered: How can independent verification and monitoring be best developed? How can the business performance as a whole be effectively measured similarly as for example costs are? Participants felt the need for more analytical case studies; the dissemination of best practices; and a professional guide to the principles.

Transparency and Corruption: The working group on transparency and corruption tackled complex and sensitive issues such as bribery, antitrust, publishing data and related public policies. The working group proposed to continue developing more information, knowledge and understanding on the issues of bribery and transparency. It was felt that there is a need for a greater exchange of experiences related to: the level playing field of competitors (integrity pacts); confidentiality clauses; due diligence; sectoral initiatives; and, in general, good practice by companies and governments. The UN convention on transparency was welcomed. The proposal by Transparency International to introduce a tenth principle to the Global Compact principles was presented briefly and discussed during plenary. In the evaluation of the meeting, participants were in favor of transparency as a concept but the opinions on whether to add an additional principle varied.

The Global Compact Performance Model and GRI: These were presented and discussed. The participants raised issues such as honesty in reporting and the leadership cost of transparent reporting. Participants raised the concern that NGOs tend to focus more on the transparent companies than on those that do not report at all, thereby punishing positive efforts. The applicability of GRI as a reporting instrument for SMEs was questioned. Participants proposed to work on the role of the Global Compact (mission, goal) in its relation to reporting. In addition, participants noted that the case for the long-range financial return of applying the nine principles has still not been made. What is the business case? Participants proposed that the Global Compact provide more examples of good practice in order to set global benchmarks, while emphasizing the Performance Model and its related tools. More tools should be developed. Participants suggested two research themes: why specific companies are not reporting and the implications of the NGO strategy of attacking companies that are reporting data thus punishing efforts toward greater transparency.

Products, Profits, Development: This working group emphasized the need for tools and communication instruments to assess and measure sustainable development; to create socially conscious consumers and learn how to market to them; and to develop better knowledge of what ecological efficiency means — and appropriate tools for assessing such efficiency. In order to advance product development with the GC’s principles in mind, greater understanding of partnership processes and collaboration is also needed, along with education on recycling policies, climate change, and the processes that companies use to move toward more sustainability. To develop this knowledge and these tools will likely require greater collaboration among companies that are ‘on this path,’ more sharing of methods, tools, and instruments used, which could be accomplished through meetings in various parts of the world. In particular, the group thought that sector- and region-specific working groups could be helpful, along with UN agency forums on specific issues, such as worker health and productivity, sustainability, and the like.

Sustainable Management: This working group raised a diversity of topics and issues, including the following questions: How can companies involve local communities and other stakeholders in the early phases of planning investments abroad? How should impact be measured? How should companies operate in countries where relevant legislation and data does not exist? Concerns were raised about the tactics of some NGOs that might lead companies to pull out of a region, creating a vacuum for corporate “cowboys” with little interest in responsible management? Banks also should take a leading role in supporting sustainable management through their investment policies.

The need for greater integration of SMEs into the work of Global Compact was expressed by most working groups. In general, participants also agreed that more experiences – good and bad – should be documented, analyzed and shared. And finally, greater efforts should be made to involve more participants from developing countries in the Global Compact.

Follow-Up

The Global Compact Office has analyzed the full reports of the different working groups and will, in consultation with the Advisory Council, take up the following priority issues for Policy Dialogues and/or Learning in 2003:

  • HIV/AIDS 
  • Supply Chain Management 
  • Roles and Responsibilities of Societal Actors 
  • Transparency 
  • Partnerships 
  • Roles of Business in Zones of Conflict 
  • Sustainable Business Development in LDCs

The Global Compact Office is reinforcing its efforts to enhance the participation of more SMEs in the Global Compact. The Global Compact, and in specific the Learning Forum, will increase its efforts to enable and mobilize more stakeholders from developing countries.

Click here for a full report of the Learning Forum Meeting by Sandra Waddock, Boston College.