Yesterday, I attended a talk given by Professor Timothy L. Fort of George Washington University's School of Business. He is also the Executive Director of GW's Institute for Corporate Responsibility. The theme of the talk was "Peace through Commerce," a growing interdisciplinary field in academics.
One of the questions Tim addressed was this: what specific behaviors (or actions) can businesses take in order to contribute to a more peaceful world? He noted that by putting people in face-to-face contact, on a continuing basis, employment itself oftentimes leads people to change their perception of others. Work provides people with a reason to work together and sometimes this makes a signficiant difference in terms of lessening hostility or reviving trust.
Tim suggested that businesses can contribute in three distinct ways to promoting more peaceful relations. First, they can help to bolster the rule of law in a country by following legal rules AND by allowing for external evaluation of their activities -- so open and transparent accounting will help shine a useful light on corporate activities. Second, by providing jobs businesses help to address problems of poverty. In turn, people who have some income may be less likely to resort to violence to meet their needs for food, shelter, etc. And, people who have work may be less likely to resort to criminal activity. He pointed to Paul Collier's work on poverty and conflict to suggest that businesses can also help promote peace by helping diversify an economy. This may be especially important in countries where the primary source of export revenue is mineral wealth. Finally, a third way in which businesses can help promote peace is through community engagement. This might mean being more sensitive to local culture or it might be a deeper involvement with local communities. While Tim wasn't suggesting that all businesses engage in corporate philanthropy, but he pointed out that in some situations this strategy will make sense.
Although Tim didn't discuss social enterprise as an "ethical" approach doing business, this is certainly what drives many of the people involved in the movement. For those of you interested in learning more about Tim's work, check out this co-authored book: The Role of Business in Fostering Peaceful Societies.