Speaking Truth to Power

Dean Addresses UN Human Rights Group

On Monday and Tuesday, April 28-29, 2008, I had a rare opportunity to tell it like it is to some of the most powerful corporations in the world. The Human Rights Working Group, part of the United Nations Global Compact, met at the Harvard Business School to discuss how businesses were addressing human rights issues in their supply chains. The event was chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and head of the UN Human Rights Commission (seen in photo with Dean and other UN human rights folks), and attended by sixty corporate and civil society leaders, from Oxfam America to General Electric, British Petroleum, Rio Tinto Zinc, Coca Cola, Telecom Italia and more. Needless to say, as I looked around the room I wondered what the heck I was doing there, but I was responding to an invitation to speak about how smaller businesses manifest their belief in human rights, so I couldn’t pass the chance up.

I only had fifteen minutes for the formal presentation. I told the audience that Human Rights was about humans, not just plans, programs and goals. I let a hundred slides of coffee farmers, their families, and our projects roll behind me as I talked about the farmers and their struggles with human rights and ecological issues, and how we worked with the communities to design programs that addressed their issues. After the talk I received a blast of applause. Many of these folks came up to me and said that we were doing things on the ground that they had never even dreamed of, and were in awe of the work we do. Several asked if they could send representatives with us on our farmer visits to learn how to do People-Centered Development. Only one major power type merely sniffed at our work.

I am usually the guy who thinks they are all full of it, only interested in money and not caring about the communities they plow under or rake over. I still feel that is the case for many. At the same time, I have seen a growing awareness even at these high levels of corporate power, of the interconnectedness of peoples and the importance of earth and community stewardship. We are in a time of amazing transition. I am not ready to put on the suit and tie, but I was given a little more hope as a result of speaking truth to power this week.

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