Understanding conflict is important for both instrumental and fundamental reasons in formulating conflict resolution mechanisms for businesses investing in Asia. Instrumentally they need to understand the process by which violent conflict erupts because it can set-back social and economic development initiatives by years. Fundamentally, minimising conflict and the violence that often ensues is important in its own right, irrespective of whether it also makes settings more attractive to investors.

The private sector – ranging from large multinationals to informal micro-enterprises – has a vital role to play in promoting socio-economic development. As market economies become more widespread, business has an increasing role in contributing to the prevention and resolution of violent conflict.

In considering the development strategy, it is important that businesses encourage economic growth, social development and effective conflict management. The latter component does not appear to be recognised by business and donors alike as an integral part of the development planning process. How a company manages and responds to conflict is important and can have significant implications for business performance.

Conflict, both large and small, where poverty and lack of opportunity underscore the need for change, is inevitable, particularly in developing countries where desirable periods of economic growth themselves become a force for realigning class structures and re-imaging the bases of group identity – a defining feature of the development process.

Even the most cursory reading of today’s news headlines quickly reveals a world experiencing multiple severe conflicts, with the recent suicide bombing in Jakarta, violence in West Papua, and ensuing violence in Mindanao in the Philippines. Even with the recognition of large-scale high-profile incidents of violence, there is also the proliferation of conflict at the local-level, and it is often from this point many large-scale conflicts begin and are experienced. Many of the most important causes of conflict, associated violence, extremism and instability are key concerns of any business investing in sustainable community development.

The causes of conflict and its underlying escalation mechanism has been a difficult question to answer, and also difficult to deconstruct in part because of the focus on different types of conflict and the disciplinary diversity from social scientists to environmentalists, psychologists and biologists. Each makes a series of core claims with corresponding calls for “more integrated civil society”, “stronger institutions”, “enhanced judicial reform”, and “more equitable development”. Indeed, development actors have increasingly integrated best practices of conflict management into more traditional development sectors such as democracy and governance, economic growth, natural resource management, security sector reform, social development, and peace building.

These are certainly important but top-down reform does not always reflect local level realities.

Solutions require contextually and locally specific negotiation between the concerned parties of a type that cannot be determined by policies that are “technical” in nature.

Analysis of conflict is something that the private sector is gradually identifying with. However, traditional private sector methods of risk assessment are not generally orientated towards analysing the causes of conflict, the actors in it, or the part played by the company itself in the conflict. Conflict transformation actors, including private sector companies, need to respond to ‘what the context demands’. The context therefore needs to be constantly analysed and assessed.

The frameworks by which we can establish effective interventions should focus on how conflicts are intrinsically embedded in relational dynamics. Deeper considerations are needed of the dynamics of conflict and their engagement with broader social and political forces. Therefore, the challenge is one of implementing context-specific practices into effective conflict management.

When formulating policy recommendations in this context, it is important to recognise the salience, complexity, and multi-faceted nature of twenty-first century identities. Even in communities which are in some ways “pre-modern,” there are highly modern elements co-existing in these communities. And thus, there is importance to minimise the extent to which these sources of identity are grounded in unequal material circumstances and differential political statuses.

In negotiating the dynamics of difference, it is therefore important to ensure that the community feels that they are actively considered to be a valued and equal part of society, where everyone has a stake in the public good and is supported at all levels. So long as they find themselves living in dire material circumstances or lack actual or meaningful membership to the community, they will be unlikely to seek constructive resolutions to conflict.

Conventional policy levers can be pushed in directions that lead to more constructive conflict resolution procedures that take into account the assertion of elements of differentiation and the way these identities are shaped. The key challenge is recognising the malleability and political salience of different identity group claims. This should help inform a corresponding set of contextual policy recommendations for businesses focused on providing incentives and resources for developing negotiation and mediation techniques that enable incompatible systems and rules to exist.

Article by Dr Kathleen Turner, Manager Strategy, Griffith Asia Institute.