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Making MNCs Respect LGBTI Rights

It might look good when a multinational company’s New York, London, or Paris headquarters signs onto an initiative like the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, announced at the last WEF conference in Davos. But unless companies can enforce LGBTI rights at all levels of their business, support at the top can mean nothing.

LONDON – Last January, at the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, the WEF, the United Nations, and leading multinational companies announced a new initiative to promote inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. It is a welcome step. But how will it work in countries where it is still socially unacceptable, or even illegal, to be gay?

The new initiative, called the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, aims to help companies assess their own compliance with the UN’s LGBTI Standards of Conduct, in order to accelerate progress toward LGBTI equality within their global workforces. But this approach overestimates global companies’ capacity to self-regulate across all levels of their businesses.

As it stands, businesses tend to hold branches in LGBTI-hostile countries – such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Russia – to lower standards than branches in countries where LGBTI people’s human rights are respected. For example, the world’s four largest accounting firms – Ernst & Young (EY), Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Deloitte – have some of the most progressive LGBTI policies of any workplace worldwide. But in Nigeria, they maintain a policy of silence and feigned ignorance regarding LGBTI rights.

One trend that facilitates such divergences is the growing popularity of “limited liability partnerships,” in which a company outsources its brand to another entity, rather than establishing a branch or subsidiary of its own. As a result, even if a company is global in name and brand, its operations often remain a local affair, with each entity subject to the values and narratives of the country or community in which it is based. This decentralization of major multinationals impedes transparency and accountability, undercutting the effectiveness of any due diligence framework.

My organization, the Bisi Alimi Foundation, has seen firsthand just how wide the disconnect can be. In our drive to accelerate social acceptance of LGBTI people in Nigeria, we have pursued engagement – such as at our annual London business roundtables – with multinationals that have a presence in the country.

Initially, we assumed that establishing ties at a company’s headquarters would facilitate engagement with local branches in Lagos or Abuja. But we quickly learned that supportive leaders in London meant little for Nigeria. Many local partners ruled out taking on LGBTI rights.

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This is true of even one very progressive global company with which I have been working for years. Though it has done important work on LGBTI rights in Europe and the United States, its Nigerian partner refuses to engage on LGBTI issues at all, emphasizing “religious freedom” instead.

To be effective in advancing inclusion, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality cannot simply rely on headquarters to carry out due diligence across all levels of the company, at least not within current frameworks. To overcome the challenge created by decentralization, companies will have to make LGBTI rights a fundamental part of their brand, no longer subject to local-level interpretation. Given the economic benefits that LGBTI inclusion implies – according to a 2017 UNAIDS study, workplace homophobia and discrimination cost countries up to $100 billion per year – the case for such a strategy is strong.

It is the responsibility of business to contribute to a healthy, just, and equitable world. That is why my organization is working to lay the foundations for greater business engagement on social issues in Nigeria. In the last two years, we have trained five companies on LGBTI issues, with an eye toward cultural sensitivities and a focus on local solutions.

Similar efforts are underway in Kenya. For example, Open For Business, in partnership with local actors, held a roundtable with companies to advance LGBTI rights in the workplace and build companies’ capacity to be proactive on social issues.

If a multinational corporation’s New York, London, or Paris headquarters signs onto an LGBTI initiative, it might look good, but progress may well not come – and, eventually, its brand may suffer. To fulfill their goals in advancing social change and boosting the attractiveness of their brands, businesses must ensure that they are able to uphold basic values like LGBTI rights at all levels.

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