Thursday, August 4, 2016
Corporate Bystanders at the Rio Olympics
Greetings from SEALS in lovely Amelia Island. On Wednesday I presented on a proposed bilateral investment treaty between the US and Cuba, and tomorrow I am part of a discussion group on Sustainable Business. I will focus on the roles and responsibilities of corporate sponsors of the Rio Olympics. According to the official Olympics website, “[m]ore than just providing products and services for the event, [the sponsors] ensure that sport always comes first and that the whole world is inspired alongside us.”
Sponsors can spend up to $200 million for the privilege to inspire us. For many sponsors, the chance to have over a billion people watch their commercials and logos appear repeatedly over a period of a few weeks on television is worth the tens of millions of dollars. They often invest in slick YouTube campaigns that show their real or imagined connections to young athletes finally achieving their lifelong dream of bringing home the gold for their country. Apparently, 54% of consumers surveyed felt more positive about Nike after the company sponsored the Olympics based on how it chose to advertise. Many companies use these kinds of sponsorships as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Dow is the official “carbon” partner of the games.
As anyone who watches the news knows, the $12 billion Rio Olympics has been fraught with controversy. According to reports, the crime rate is soaring and the bay is so filthy that the athletes have been warned to keep their mouths closed during water events. Brazil was one of the ten largest economies in the world when it was awarded the games years ago and now is in free fall. As part of the deal to get the games, Brazil promised the IOC and its citizens gleaming new transportation systems, hospitals, and infrastructure but one in seven of Rio’s citizens still live in one of the 1,000 favelas and those have not improved at all. A number of people have actually lost their homes to make way for Olympic venues. Rio’s street children have asked the head of the IOC for assurances that their human rights will be respected.
Human Rights Watch prepared a report last year that outlines some key concerns about the human rights abuses that typically occur at mega sporting events. Although the Olympic Charter states at p. 14 that “the practice of sport is a human right,” the HRW report identified violations that typically occur at these kinds of events. Many have already been documented in Rio including: forced evictions without due process or compensation due to massive new infrastructure construction; environmental activism; threats, intimidation, and arrests of journalists; silencing of civil society and rights activists, and discrimination.What does any of this have to do with business? I have some questions about the role of business that I will explore tomorrow and in my research.
West Virginia Professor Jena Martin has written about the concept of the “corporate bystander.” She notes that, “TNCs often get involved in relationships with state actors who violate international human rights. TNCs then argue that they cannot be held accountable for the violations because they merely observed the underlying atrocities and did not participate in the acts that caused them.” The large corporate sponsors who tout their corporate social responsibility initiatives and who vehemently oppose human rights shareholder proposals because they already have a program in place will likely distance themselves from what is going on in Brazil. They are just sponsors after all. But is that an appropriate response? Should the IOC do more to require human rights safeguards? Should corporate sponsors conduct impact assessments or is their involvement too attenuated? Do the consumers who felt better about Nike after watching the Olympics commercials care about the street children in Brazil or the women who are displaced from their homes? Would they think twice about buying sneakers if they read some of the links in this blog? Does any of this move the share price in either direction? What is the actual business case for balancing the corporate sponsorship with the human rights impact?
The head of the IOC has signed on to work with the UN on the Sustainable Development Goals--seventeen economic, environmental, social, and governance initiatives that the private sector, government, and civil society aim to achieve by 2030. How does that square with conducting the Olympics in locales with human rights and environmental violations? Should the IOC only hold the Olympics in host countries with "perfect" human rights records and what would that even look like?
I will be discussing these issues tomorrow and will explore it more firsthand when I head to Rio on Saturday. In the meantime, corporate sponsors may hope that the press coverage on Friday evening focuses on panoramic shots of Sugarloaf and Copacabana Beach and not the planned protests before the opening ceremonies.
Huh. I'm old enough to remember when the idea of rich multinational corporations pressuring poor third world governments was supposed to be bad.
Posted by: Frank Snyder | Aug 5, 2016 8:49:23 AM