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Insights 14 Jul 2010

Sunlight and Stories for Congo

By Patrin Watanatada

Here’s how I would describe where we think companies should go with their sustainability reporting:

  • Be ready for Pull: Disclose a set of minimally processed data that professional analysts can crunch and compare.
  • Get ready to Push: Communicate selected data in ways that will resonate with a company’s key stakeholder groups, placed where they are most likely to see and use it.

In other words, Sunlight + Stories.

Nowadays, disclosure – the act of releasing information – can feel a little unexciting. Now that a sizeable majority of Fortune 500 companies are engaging in some form of sustainability reporting, much of which isn’t being read by anyone other than professional report readers, discussions in sustainability circles are moving towards how data can be used – not simply made public – in order to influence thinking and behavior.

But none of that changes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Yesterday, we got a reminder of just how groundbreaking disclosure can be: Congress’s Wall Street reform bill includes a provision that requires companies to report whether they source conflict minerals from Congo or countries in the region, and what steps they are taking to exclude these from their supply chains. (Minerals such as coltan, tin, and tungsten are key to making the electronic parts of our laptops, mobile phones, cameras and other digital goodies, and profits from their sales seem to be financing the warlords.

Tremendous news. Is this one of the first mandatory requirements in the US for human rights disclosure in the supply chain? In any case, it comes a decade after activists such the Enough Project first began pressuring companies on this issue, a decade in which demand for consumer electronics worldwide has surely skyrocketed. Congratulations to everyone who fought hard for this.

The numbers are bad enough: according to the International Rescue Committee, some five and half million people have died from causes related to the fighting in Congo since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. A woman is raped every 30 minutes.

But what’s brought these numbers to terrible life for me – and, surely, for those activists who’ve worked so long for these advances – are the stories: like playwright Eve Ensler’s monologues written from the point of view of girls and women who have been repeatedly, brutally raped in one of the most terrible weapons of war imaginable, which I saw performed as part of Congo Now!, a campaign organized by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region that uses photography, music, interviews and readings to raise awareness and push for action. Or the stories quietly passed on by the NYT’s Nick Kristof, who’s been writing about Congo since 1997. Another example of generating action from the personal connection that only stories create: Women for Women International is a website that provides a platform for women rebuilding their lives to tell their stories and lets ’sponsors’ connect with these women with financial and emotional support on a one-to-one basis.

Sunlight + Stories. A powerful combination.

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