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Long read: It’s time to rethink the role of business in social cohesion and domestic terrorism

In the wake of the terrible events in Nice of July 14 2016 and other terror attacks, business leaders and managers must respond by grasping the importance of healthy societies to the future of Europe, argues Tobias Webb

 I’m writing this for two reasons. Firstly, because the terrorist attack that happened in Nice on Thursday last week unfolded right in front of me as a resident of the city. Secondly, because I feel the need to do something in response. I’ve spent my career working on persuading business to become more engaged in society and the environment.

So here my aim is to make the case for better business engagement in vulnerable societies. Those communities which surround them and buy their products and services. In particular, those at the bottom of the economic pile, who live, work and can help identify better than anyone, the vulnerable who need help, or the truly dangerous individuals who cannot be negotiated with. This could be by connecting those groups with supporting community workers, activists, and leaders who can bring about change, and backing new approaches to community and economic empowerment, in a number of different ways. I’ll talk about these below.

The article you often see in the wake of such terrible events as occurred last week in Nice argues for “a fundamental rethink of how we think about inclusive societies”. I’m nervous about writing one of these pieces, given how hard big change is to make happen quickly. However, the events in Nice, and so many others elsewhere, do tell us we have to drastically improve how societies, and niches within them, interact together and communicate. Responsible businesses can help here, and many need to think much harder now about how they can do this. This is my argument. Clearly companies have an important role to play in improving the environment around them. And just as obviously, they can do so much more effectively than is being done today.

The events in Nice this past week, which began very close to where I live in this beautiful seaside city, have shocked me deeply, along with the world.

I walk on that exact Promenade almost every day. I know every meter of it. Minutes before the attack happened, I was watching the Bastille day fireworks from my terrace less than a kilometre away, and thinking that maybe next year, I should go down there and watch from the Promenade itself. A few moments later I was hearing from friends that they had only just escaped with their lives. Still now, as I begin writing this on Friday evening, sirens blare in the background and my adopted city is tense. People are wandering around in grim faced shock. No one speaks.

A different kind of threat

I grew up under the threat, and reality of terrorism. As a child in Germany, where my father worked for the Ministry of Defence as a civilian head teacher, I used to check under his car for bombs in the mornings. In 1988, when I was 12, my father’s school in Ratingen, Dusseldorf, was blown up by the I.R.A. They were attempting, apparently, to attack the officers on the military base where the school was located, on their morning run. My father and I had been doing renovations in the school just days previously.

Similarly as an 18-year-old backpacker in Israel in 1994 I witnessed several attacks on soldiers, civilians, tourists, and Kibbutzes. We were mortared from across the border, a man was shot near me, and I saw the aftermath of a suicide gun attack in Zion square, Jerusalem. In 2005, I was working in London a few hundred meters from where the Aldgate bomber blew himself up. I took that same train several times a week.

In this case, here in Nice, it was a local man with a string of petty crime convictions, who decided to become what he likely saw as “a lone wolf hero” to Islamo-fascist extremists. To go out in what he saw as a blaze of glory, and what most of the rest of us see as the ultimate cowardliness.

Nurture, not nature

Samuel Huntingdon’s 1992 essay “Clash of Civilisations” predicted, “that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world”. Huntingdon’s theories are more complex than just this, and are heavily criticised by other noted theorists such as Amartya Sen and Edward Said.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the attacker in Nice is likely to have created for himself, an identity in opposition to the vast majority of people in France, in order to justify his actions and create the catalyst for them. One could also argue that there are a very tiny proportion of people in society, any society, who through personal experience more than nature, become unbalanced and dangerous.

I’d suggest that it may well be many of these unstable people, who can be impressionable, sometimes (but not always) exploited and who often have less access to education and economic opportunity, that turn to radical ideology.

This is not always true. The 9/11 hijackers were not of this ilk, as many other radical terrorists, such as some of those who have journey recently to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, are not. But it is sometimes true, particularly in France, Belgium and the UK in recent years. It is true often enough that whilst it’s hard, very hard to change the mind of an educated radical, I believe it can be done early on, with those who grow up under less fortunate circumstances.

Money where it makes a measureable difference

From 2007 to about 2012 I supported and was a Trustee of a London based charity founded by my friend Simon Marcus. It’s called the Boxing Academy, and whilst it’s not what it was today, in it’s heyday it regularly prevented young men from becoming radicalised.

The model worked by taking vulnerable young men without good male role models in their lives, and giving them a sense of self worth and discipline, combined with education and qualifications, using non-contact Boxing training.

It worked, and I can show you the stats to prove it. In one measured period, there was a ninety per cent success record in getting young men qualifications and into the workforce. Helping them become citizens, in short. Large companies can play a role in funding these kinds of initiatives, in mentoring their leaders with executive experience, and that role clearly needs to be redefined and made much more ambitious across Europe today. Instead, many waste valuable and limited cash on PR initiatives and business memberships groups, which deliver little. Worse, these groups divert money away from where it can save lives.

Tackling humiliation as a priority

One of, if not the key driver of ongoing conflict between groups, and that helps them to shape powerful identities, is the idea of ‘humiliation’. This is playing out hugely in places like France and elsewhere across Europe in communities that feel left behind. They are poor, they are left behind, and they feel they are second-class citizens. The collective sentiment is of deliberate humiliation. This justifies the desire in a tiny minority to use radical ideology as an excuse to ‘strike back’. So what’s to be done in response? One way is for those seeking to help to recognize this, and help create a sense of pride and inclusion in those communities likely to feel this way. This is increasingly recognized by large companies, such as Hyatt or Diageo, who call for “thriving communities”, or simply define their strategy, as the in the case of SAB Miller, a big brewer, as “Prosper”. But these firms, like all others, are going to need to make sure what they invest gets to the heart of tackling challenges like felt humiliation in communities in more strategic ways than traditional corporate community programmes have done in the past.

The context has changed

All over France, in towns you’ve never heard of, such as Montlucon, slap bang in the middle of central France, where I’ve spent time, you find Muslim areas. They are almost always poorer and scruffier, and often the French avoid them. Property value in these areas is often much lower.

When I first moved to Nice, I lived in the Musician’s quarter, at the ‘wrong end’ of rue Alphonse Karr. My tiny apartment was in a former hotel, and the building was about as multi-cultural as you get. Everyone got along fine, despite the noise.

Just around the corner though, is one of Nice’s Muslim areas. You could tell as soon as you turned the corner. Everything looks poorer, and lots of men hang around on the streets. Almost all of them were perfectly civil, but you could feel the difference, culturally and economically. Postcode discrimination is active.

I used to shop at the fruit and vegetable market stall in my local Muslim area and exchanged cheery greetings with the owner. I never witnessed any trouble, but did see a few things that disturbed me. Gangs of young men, bored and smoking or selling weed, might make a comment as you passed. In the Internet shop where I used to go, to print out documents, very young men, definitely teenagers would sit at computers, smoking and watching hard-core pornography in the middle of the afternoon on the Internet. I recall them eyeing me curiously, as if to say “what are you doing around here?”.

Clearly, lots of people were economically inactive in the area, and this is reflected in the numbers. Across France, youth unemployment for young Muslim men can be as high as 50%. As we all know, many of the recent attacks across France featured homegrown self-styled terrorists who come from areas like this.

French labour laws and employment racism are often blamed for these levels of unemployment, and rightfully so in some ways. But education plays a major role too.

Twenty years ago, a good friend of mine taught in a school in Toulon, a tough town not so far from Nice on the Mediterranean coast. He was told by other teachers not to bother trying to teach the young Muslim students much. They were, he was told, inbred, lazy and uninterested. He still recounts the story as one of his most shocking workplaces experiences today.

Those particular students would be a similar age to the man it is believed carried out the attacks in Nice this week. Clearly there are other factors in every person’s development, not least parents. Whilst there is not that much big companies can do via their thinking about responsible business to improve individual parenting, there are other things that can be done, and done better, to help improve society, and the lives of the vulnerable in France and elsewhere.

Back in 2005, when the Banlieue’s around Paris and other cities were choked with the smoke of burning cars in social protest, French companies made commitments to do more in society. Today, some progress has been made. But so much more (such a cliché I know) remains to be done.

If communities where people likely to do insane things such as the events of last week are more cohesive, more connected to others around them, there has to be more chance of spotting candidates for horrific acts like this? This could involve helping them at a much younger age, getting counselling and psychological treatment, or simply putting them away where they cannot hurt others. Business, particularly large companies with budgets that can make a difference, can make those communities more connected, and they need to start doing so in a better way than they do today.

Rethink, rework, and innovate

The first step for business leaders must be fundamental. Companies, in light of what is happening in France today, and elsewhere, need to re-think their how and why they spend money on community investment.

Are their social commitments making a difference where it counts, or are they responding to the loudest voices or most visible social media pressures? Are they operating on PR principles, or fundamental values? If the former, CEOs must be pressed to think very hard about their role as leaders. That values conversation, not ‘demonstrated’ through philanthropy, must be updated, and not rely solely on the cultural and structural history of French CSR. (This excellent piece, one of the few good articles on CSR in France in English, explains the traditional cultural context well here in France)

Secondly, companies need to view structured social dialogue, which is very common in France, as having serious benefits, but also as inhibiting innovation if it becomes all that they do. Take employment for example. Engaging with unions and negotiating change is common in France, but if over prioritised, for understandable reasons, can inhibit new thinking elsewhere. I remember a conference in Berlin a couple of years ago, where two of the largest German companies proudly recounted their experience in holding a “stakeholder day”, in front of the renowned responsible business academic Edward Freeman. The satisfied looks on their faces evaporated when he then lambasted them with the line “stakeholder engagement is not once a year, it’s every day”.

Support innovation, not lobby against it

Companies keen to expand or innovate from current thinking might consider promoting the idea of the gig economy to politicians. In France that means reforming laws, which successive government have said they want to do anyhow. This is not easy. It’s happening slowly, and the loudest voices, not the most representative, often hold back progress.

But companies are usually accused of suggesting reforms in their own interests, so how about publicly lobbying for progressive reform much more explicitly for the greater good?

There are some ways of how different thinking that could be promoted by big business, has empowered people here in Nice, despite often violent opposition.

For example, I know quite a few people in Nice who make a living from both Uber and AirBnB. Let’s focus on Uber, a company that’s as controversial in France as it is anywhere else in the world. The corporate culture isn’t the nicest I’ve ever come across, and the firm has made lots of mistakes, but the reason it is popular is because it works, and not just for customers looking to save money.

A cab license in Nice costs 400,000 Euros, and is passed or sold on by drivers. That’s the same price as a three-bedroom apartment in a good part of town. Taxi licenses are what you call a closed market, no doubt about that. Taxis in France are phenomenally expensive and the service experience is often poor.

Before Uber, in Nice, if the bus didn’t go where you need, and it was too far to walk, and the hills too steep to cycle, you had a problem. I’ve used Uber constantly for two years here and I’ve met and spoken with dozens of drivers.

They are mostly young Muslim men, smartly dressed and with impeccable manners. The job is usually part time, or seasonal, but for some is full time work.

These mostly young men have immense pride in what they do, and the service is half or a third of the price of the over-priced, rude, standard taxis.

Whilst the gig economy is criticised by many as in danger of becoming the norm, and lacking employment rights and safeguards, for many Uber drivers I have met it’s either a way to supplement income whilst they work on business ideas, a first rung on the employment ladder, or both.

It’s a job that makes you dress smartly, turn up on time, get paid, pay taxes and be accountable to an ‘employer’ and to customers. That’s a lot better than no job at all, or a much worse one, where you are likely less in charge of your own destiny. No, it’s not perfect, but the Uber model has done wonders for many young Muslim men here in France. I know, I’ve asked them in detail. The point here is that companies must help promote a reform agenda that allows, even focuses on employment for young people.

Impact, not vague ‘empowerment’

A third area, beyond rethinking values, and encouraging structural change that can catalyse innovation, is reworking community investment. If you decide as a company that making a difference in vulnerable communities where a tiny proportion of citizens, or others, may end up becoming radicalised is a key goal, then that might help you refocus community investment. Large companies have initiatives on all sorts of areas where citizens are economically disadvantaged. From micro-finance to apprenticeships, prisoner rehabilitation, community energy or business funding and support and mentoring. How many of these, in France or elsewhere, are focused on the poorest communities at home? Communities within which real danger lurks.

Can business budgets be increased to engage with, help empower and measure progress on taking particularly young men, or men under 40, and helping them gain self-respect, a place in society? I’ll add a note of caution here, which is not intended to discourage engagement.

We know a small proportion of leaders in Islamic sub-communities are as responsible for these problems as exclusion and racism are. Companies or foundations handing out community funds must know whom the funds are going to and why, or could risk exacerbating the problem.

To come back to the example of Nice in making this point for a moment; The mayor of Nice refuses to allow a mosque to be built in the city, so many worship ‘underground’ in the company of, or lead by, radical preachers. Supporting openness and tolerance in the city clearly means promoting open worship in the way that other religions have theirs. This would undoubtedly help alleviate the problem of felt humiliation that can drive radicalisation. This is an uncomfortable area for business, but perhaps one that needs consideration. There are ways beyond direct lobbying to effect change. Donations to community foundations, or supporting independent media.

If we want better, more confident community relations, where the vulnerable or just the downright dangerous are more visible and are tackled early, we need to invest in them. Companies need to rethink how they are involved here. That may start with values, lead to innovation and result in improving how they work with and empower communities, but it must happen if CEOs are to demonstrate they really want to make a difference in society.

In the Batman film “The Dark Knight” Michael Caine steals the movie with the famous line “some men just want to watch the world burn”.

It’s a poignant moment in the film, particularly thinking about the events of this past week in Nice. But such men (yes they are almost always men) are a miniscule minority. It’s just that they have an enormous impact. The rest just want a job, a decent abode, a family and life, just like the rest of us.

Business is going to have to work much harder help those citizens to get there, so the really dangerous ones, often living amongst them, become much more obvious to the security services, much earlier.

I’m not simply arguing through, that such rethinking of how business helps society (as society supports business) should be done so it’s easier to spot the lunatics and get them help, or put them away.

Societies growing together are first and foremost a moral issue. By helping communities thrive, so business thrives and is accepted and better understood.

Giving communities something to lose and a lot to gain will then provide a direct incentive for them to spot who needs help, or may end up in jail, before they can do such terrible things as happened in my adopted home city on July 14th, 2016.

A friend of mine who spent 15 years working on gang and youth crime in the London police, articulates the solutions well: “Local investment and employment empowers communities. Pride is instilled, crime is less tolerated, and the radical recruiters have less to work with”.

Beyond all of the above, and going against my earlier wish not to take the easier high-level road and make the argument that “now we must change everything”, I have a nagging doubt that all of the above might not be enough.

I’ve never argued, as no one should, that better business engagement in society can help fix everything. At the same time, will re-thought approaches by CEOs on social change and the role of business, as I’ve suggested, make much difference?

The bigger picture

I would argue yes, a bit and in some cases, a lot. But this is still perhaps playing around the edges of the real issue. This “real issue” is what we might call a crisis in a model of liberal democracy coupled with capitalism in an era of globalisation and technology advances. This model as it currently is structured and works, (and we know it seems to be the ‘least worst’ model to appropriate Churchill’s quote about democracy), is coming to the end of its era. Unless we address the structural weaknesses of the model to deliver for the ‘many not the few’ in society, all of the below will be ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.

The inequality and sense of structural exclusion and disadvantage of not just Muslims in France (but more acute there than any other visible group that can define itself as ‘kith and kin’) will not go away if we look at where wealth and capital currently accumulate, and where in the next 10-15 years we are about to unleash another extraordinary wave of change that is likely to exacerbate not tackle that if not actively managed. Digital advances, automation, and the resulting job losses are an example of this.

So big business also needs a wake up call that we really need to bring the ‘social’ back into our models and into what we push for and permit in society. That may be in promoting a shift away from taxing labour to ‘radical’ ideas such as taxing capital, or the exploitation of natural resources. It may be the idea of giving ‘universal incomes’ to people. It may be other areas, as yet not articulated or theorized well. But without considering both changing how we approach communities today and this bigger picture we may be in for Paris, Brussels, Nice, Istanbul, Dhaka – all shocking in their own way but all part of the same trends – as the ‘New Normal’.

The simple bottom line is that social cohesion is now a top of the agenda business issue for companies seeking to be sustainable. Business needs to step up in tackling this key challenge, much more than it has to date. I can see a time when companies seek to surprise cynics by calling for and being part of that discussion of real systems change. Deeper and better-funded and scalable pilot projects and new kinds of partnerships will be key elements. We’ve seen it, eventually, on climate change and on modern slavery.

Post ‘Brexit’, social cohesion across Europe is going to become as strategically important to big business as GHG emissions or basic human rights are today in the value chain. CEOs must be pushed or prodded or ideally, inspired, to go beyond reactionary lobbying. So that they, and their companies can be part of shaping a future for all, not just the few that choose to hold their shares or buy products directly.


About the writer: Tobias Webb is founder of Innovation Forum. He has spent 15 years working in sustainable and ethical business, researching and creating conferences, reports, articles, blogs and podcasts. He has advised governments and many large companies around the world since 2001. See: and for more.