Last summer, Devin Stewart interviewed Chris Avery, the founder of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. The Centre, which tracks the positive and negative impact of more than 3,600 businesses in more than 180 countries, recently redesigned its website. Devin Stewart interviews the Resource Centre's Head of Program, Annabel Short, who oversaw that process.
Annabel, what is the overall concept of your site?
The aim of our website is to encourage companies to respect human rights, by bringing reports about their conduct to a global audience.
When the Resource Centre was founded in 2002 it could have adopted the model of many human rights organizations, investigating cases and then writing reports on them. Using that model, we may have produced one report every few months, looking at the impact of just one company in one of the many countries where it operates.
The other option was not to write our own reports, but to use the Internet to bring together the thousands of cases—positive and negative—that are already out there, produced by community organizations, NGOs, the media, and the companies themselves. Taking international human rights standards as our starting point, our website provides a dynamic information hub where concerns can be aired and companies can respond. The site now receives 1.5 million hits per month.
Companies respect our approach. We highlight positive steps they are taking, as well as alleged abuses. The website provides useful tools for business people, such as a running list of human rights policy statements by companies and guidance for managing human rights issues. And, perhaps most importantly, we invite companies to provide responses to concerns about their conduct, which we then publish unedited on our site.
So far we have invited more than 300 companies to respond and more than 75 percent have done so. Civil society organizations then often follow up on the companies' responses.
The Resource Centre uses the power of networks to empower a small staff to track the human rights records of thousands of businesses. How has technology helped you fulfill your mission?
In many ways, our organization is our website. We couldn't exist without the use of technology.
There are fewer than 200 governments in the world but many thousands of major companies. Technology gives us the speed and reach that are essential for tracking the human rights impact of the private sector.
In one day, we can be in touch with an Indian NGO about the violent suppression of villagers protesting their displacement by an energy project; a lawyer in Argentina bringing a case against a multinational for alleged complicity in abuses during the 1976–83 dictatorship; and a trade union in Honduras highlighting the poor working conditions of private security guards. We can post their concerns on the website immediately, if the positions of the companies involved are already available. If not, we can in that same day contact the companies for their side of the story.
The companies are likely to respond because they know that we will be bringing the concerns to the attention of thousands of people worldwide: through our website and through our free Weekly Updates, which are sent by email to 4,600+ people working in government, international agencies, business, media, investment firms, and financial institutions.
What inspired the Resource Centre to launch a new site? Which sites did you use as a model?
The look of our previous website was very much that of an online library, a simple blue-and white design with no fancy features and no images. By the time we began the redesign at the end of last year it already had more than 20,000 links to news items and reports. The links were organized chronologically within thousands of library categories—categories on companies, sectors, human rights issues, countries, etc.
Some fans of the website, who had plenty of time to browse, liked its dense, no-frills layout. But many said that the quantity of information was overwhelming and that the format made it difficult to know where to start. The redesign aimed to make the website more accessible without detracting in any way from the quality or comprehensiveness of its content.
We looked at other websites that, like ours, are regularly updated and that aim to present a large quantity of information clearly and effectively. These included: news sites such as the BBC; the websites of other facts-driven human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch; and innovative websites that provide a platform for ideas on social justice, stimulating debate by bringing varied and fresh perspectives together in one place—such as openDemocracy and (of course) Policy Innovations.
What are some of the new features of the new site?
The new design uses simple colored boxes and much more white space to help users navigate their way around. The format makes it easier for users:
To search for a company: We have made the search engine far more prominent, encouraging users to type in a company name to pull up its human rights record (currently the site covers more than 3,600 companies)—or to type in a sector, subject, or country.
To keep updated: Via sections on our homepage such as the News box—updated hourly—and the new Feature of the Week that enables us to give greater prominence to a particularly interesting or important case.
What were some obstacles you encountered during the redesign?
One time-consuming process was the selection of photographs. We wanted to reflect our editorial balance in the photos, not only in the different issues they portrayed but also by including images of positive steps by companies, as well as abuses. This took a lot of searching, given that good news is less reported than bad and is harder to capture in compelling images.
Which tools do you use to create buzz for your site?
There are many ways we do this. We keep the site updated every hour so that people want to come back and check what is new. We send information out—for example through our Weekly Updates—rather than just waiting for people to come to the website. When the new site was launched we spread the word widely through newswires such as CSRWire and through intermediary organizations.
We are permanently in touch with new contacts around the world. For example we let NGOs, companies, and journalists know when we have linked to their material, which gives us the opportunity to introduce the site to them. We also have an International Advisory Network of 80 experts on business and human rights, chaired by Mary Robinson, who help raise the profile of the website with relevant audiences in the course of their work.
In a more substantive sense, no doubt the traffic to our site—which comes from all regions—reflects an increasing demand for information about companies' human rights and environmental conduct. The Resource Centre was set up partly as a reaction to the proliferation of corporate responsibility statements and presentations that often fail to convey how a company's operations are actually impacting people on the ground. By taking a human-rights focused approach based on specific cases and facts rather than rhetoric (1), the information we provide is of interest to people from all sectors, from activist NGOs to companies.
What's next for the coming year?
A few new features we will add in the coming year include:
RSS feeds from our News section.
Getting Started boxes (some of which the site has already) for the different sections of the website. For human rights issues—for example racial discrimination, poverty & development, freedom of expression—these boxes will provide a thumbnail sketch of the issue as it relates to the private sector, and links to introductory texts, key cases, and expert commentaries. They will provide that important extra layer of information and analysis, above the extensive raw material in the form of chronological news items and reports.
For company sections of our site, the Getting Started box will provide a link to the company's human rights policy if it has one, an example of a positive initiative by the company, and an example of an important allegation against it (as well as how the company responded).
Portals looking at certain topics in more depth. For example we will soon be launching a Legal Accountability Portal highlighting significant lawsuits brought against companies in all regions, that we are developing in consultation with leading human rights lawyers. Subject to funding, we are also planning portals on human rights tools for business people, and on business & HIV/AIDS.
We would welcome any suggestions of new material for the site, comments on reports we already link to, and thoughts on the new design.
1. The Resource Centre takes a bottom-up, human rights-focused approach as opposed to the top-down approach that characterizes corporate social responsibility. Christopher Avery describes this distinction in "The Difference Between CSR and Human Rights."