By helping Colombia's business sector to understand how its own practices are related to the underlying causes of violence in the country, Daniel Suárez is bringing business leaders into the process of building a lasting peace.
The New Idea
Daniel Suárez is creating a series of concrete steps by which businesspeople can participate in building peace in Colombia. Having targeted a subset of business leaders already committed to peace initiatives–the Peace Group of Bogotá's Business Leaders Forum–Daniel is leading participating members of a pilot group to "get their own houses in order," identifying ways in which their own practices need to be more transparent, their resolution of internal conflicts more peaceful, and their attention to communities more mindful of social justice. After its first year, the group will expand to include other business leaders, and eventually it will seek to place business representatives in the national peace dialogues alongside political representatives. Although it is not commonly noted, there are enormous incentives for businesspeople to participate in Colombia's peace process. Businesspeople are targets of kidnappings and ransom demands, which are both dangerous personally and costly from a business point of view. It is also hard to do business without peaceful norms in the country. Daniel believes that no other segment of Colombian society has as much potential for positive impact as the business sector has. Business is economically and politically powerful, and it has expertise in implementing solutions to challenges. It is also integrated into all aspects of society, into the Colombian social fabric. Daniel asserts that if businesspeople do not get directly involved in promoting peace, Colombia will have a difficult time building a lasting one.
Colombia has been ravaged by armed conflict for decades. Daniel believes that Colombia's problems do not only have to do with a power struggle between the armed actors in the war, but rather that they also stem from social injustice and massive corruption. In particular, Daniel says, there are three primary types of causes of violence in Colombia: 1) political causes (exclusion, corruption, cronyism, and the lack of citizen self-regulation); 2) civil causes (the acceptance of force as a mechanism for solving conflicts and the perceived need to take justice into one's own hands); and 3) economic causes (poverty–and in Colombia, the poor resort to the violence of guerrillas and paramilitary groups because they pay well). The importance of business participation in peace processes has been demonstrated in other countries. In South Africa, for example, businesspeople successfully served as mediators between the government and the African National Congress. However, in Colombia, businesspeople have not found a unified or effective way to participate in their country's peace process. In part, this is due to lack of agency. Daniel observes that most of them understand the protracted social conflict as a process in which they are the victims of violent guerrillas and a corrupt government. They rarely consider themselves as active agents in society who should take responsibility for the violence that pervades it. They do not discern the three types of causes of violence (political, civil, economic) and how Colombian business affects them. For solutions, many businesspeople–like Colombians generally–expect others to take charge: One businessperson told Daniel that he thought the solution for reaching peace in Colombia was to ask the US government to send its army to eradicate guerrillas. They see the contributions they do make through normal business processes as meaning they do not have to do anything else; many think that they are contributing sufficiently to peace by offering employment opportunities. Even when businesspeople have a heightened interest in contributing to peace (such as the Peace Group of the Business Leaders Forum), they have not known how to proceed.
Daniel has elected to work with medium-sized businesses, which represent 85 percent of Colombia's business sector. These businesses have a pressing need to work for peace in the country; unlike the employees of multinationals that have headquarters in the US or elsewhere, these businesspeople cannot afford to leave Colombia. In addition, Daniel is branching out to include high schools in order to prepare future business leaders to build peaceful processes in their institutions, in their communities, and in the country. Starting in April 2002, five businesses and five schools will begin the pilot phase of Daniel's peace-building program.For the first half of 2001, Daniel met weekly with the Peace Group of Bogotá's Business Leaders Forum to plan the pilot program. The Forum comprises one hundred fifty entrepreneurs whose mid-sized companies employ around one hundred people each. They spent much of that time together analyzing the causes of violence in Colombia and identifying the role of business in the current conflict. Every week they studied the root causes of political and urban violence. After many debates, they became aware that these kinds of violence are caused not only by violent guerrillas, but also a weak state, and crucially, by the violence and corruption that underlies all facets of Colombian life. During that time, the Peace Group, which previously only held workshops and trainings, grew from five to fifteen members. Several examples from their weekly discussions give an idea of how the businesspeople's perceptions have begun to change already and suggest some of what might unfold within participating businesses and schools during the pilot program. One example is related to urban violence. Some participants said that the best strategy for fighting juvenile gangs was police control. After Daniel and other members of the group presented statistics relating to crime and poverty in some areas of Bogotá, they recognized that many times young people get into crime because they do not have jobs. Many perceptions also changed regarding corruption. When they first started their work, some Peace Group members stated that corruption was caused only by the state. Daniel and members of the Group, however, cited examples that illustrated how many corrupt politicians in Colombia have been supported by the private sector throughout their history. For instance, according to some scholars, the close relationship between business conglomerates and the state was what allowed President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) to overcome the drug-financing scandal of his presidential campaign. The conglomerates' dependence on the state for credit, contracts, and regulations in order to maintain their business activities created the conditions for conglomerates to support Samper. Through these kinds of examples, the businesspeople started to identify connections between private sector activities, corruption, and violence in Colombia. They also became disavowed of the idea that there is a difference between "big corruption" and the kind of smaller-scale corruption that happens every day. In fact, they learned, the roots of "big corruption" are in everyday corruption–which occurs in businesses when, for example, companies or their employees evade taxes. Daniel presented statistics showing that in 1999, 41 percent of businesspeople evaded taxes, according to the National Department of Taxes. As the pilot program unfolds, it will create solutions in three areas, each corresponding to one of the three principal types of causes of violence plaguing Colombia: 1) Self-regulation solutions to address corruption, 2) Conflict resolution to abate physical violence, and 3) Promotion of the entrepreneurial spirit to foster economic vitalization. For the first two program areas, facilitators will go on-site to schools and businesses to discuss the two topics and why they are important. The participating group will then generate diagnostic tools to determine what problems may exist within their school or company, and decide collectively how to address what they have identified–through formal mechanisms like an ombudsman or a conflict committee, or nontraditional methods that the participants create. Outputs will be products such as declarations of company values or compilations of usable problem-solving tools. Daniel and the Peace Group plan to ask participants to secure time for the work by using the provisions of a law that requires schools and businesses to allow students and employees a minimum of two hours a week for credited extracurricular work or training. The third program area, promotion of entrepreneurial spirit, strives to resolve the economic causes of violence in Colombia. Daniel will involve communities that surround the schools and businesses, as well as the schools and businesses themselves. Together, they will foster good business practices, and they will create entrepreneurial groups that will come up with creative ideas for collectives and microenterprises, for example. The businesses will engage with the communities to help create avenues for income generation to reduce delinquency, robberies, and participation in armed groups. Daniel emphasizes that these programs will not guarantee jobs, but they will create economic resources in the communities.The Bogotá Chamber of Commerce is already committed to providing technical support in all three areas. Transparency International has also expressed interest in sharing its methods and providing technical support on the anti-corruption portion of the program. The University of the Andes likewise has offered to collaborate on the methodology, and the Mayor of Bogotá has delegated an experienced consultant to perform follow-up on the project. Daniel and the Peace Group intend for the pilot program in Bogotá to begin quietly. Once they have results, after about a year, they will be shared with other cities through the Business Leaders Forum and a network that they will create. Daniel believes that in five to seven years there will be enough of a base of peace within businesses and between businesses and communities that the businesses can enter into the national peace process, as third-party mediators or facilitators.
Daniel grew up in a family of eight siblings. His father had little education but was hard-working. His mother also was not highly educated but worked as a teacher and saw to it that her eight children received quality educations. After being a spiritual leader in high school, Daniel's concerns for the well-being of others shifted from a religious to a social and political nature. At university, Daniel was a student leader who organized two different social groups: one in which students debated about the country's problems, and one which channeled students to poor communities to work in development brigades. In the late 1980s, with a rise in narco-terrorism and the deaths of several presidential candidates, there was a great deal of anti-government protest. Daniel felt that it was easy to complain, but he and other students wanted to work and do something to change the situation, so they founded the organization Opción Colombia (Option Colombia). Through this organization, students hold six-month internships in different municipalities, including the most tempestuous ones in the country. Since its founding ten years ago, Opción Colombia has sent approximately 3,450 students to nine hundred eighty out of Colombia's one thousand seventy-five municipalities. Although it started out in the private University of the Andes, which is attended almost entirely by wealthy students, Opción Colombia is now primarily in the hands of students from the public universities. Daniel continues on the board of directors. Daniel has come to the business sector after working for more than ten years in communities and in the social sector. He has always been intent on applying theory. He studied in the United States, where he participated in seminars on conflict resolution, and Britain, where he earned his Masters degree in it, in order to acquire the practical tools to apply theory. Building on what he accomplished in Opción Colombia, Daniel is now shifting his attention toward involving businesspeople in "opting for Colombia" and participating in the peace process.