Democratising Verification

Democratising Verification

When I published Beyond Certification in mid-2015, I noted that innovation was most needed in the verification part of our Values-Transparency-Transformation-Verification (VT TV) work. That innovation is now happening and is gathering pace as we and other innovators seek to democratise verification processes.

Who needs labels when people in the field can tell you what’s going on?

Democratising verification means putting verification in the hands of the people directly and indirectly affected by a company’s operations. It means no more, or at best, only a few auditors. Yes, it’s a ‘disruption’. If you ask me, as a colleague recently did, “What is the biggest challenge facing certification schemes?” I would answer that it’s going to be their ability to stay relevant in the face of the certain onset of technology-based, democratised verification processes.

The scale of global supply chains is such that there just aren’t enough good auditors. They just don’t have sufficient time on the ground to check before whizzing off to the next site. Even if there were enough auditors, we still have the problem, highlighted in Beyond Certification, of their conflict of interest – I pay you to audit me. We need verification processes that avoid these conflicts of interest, that achieve much greater scale, that are available in near real time, that cost much less and have much greater effectiveness - enter technology; enter democratised processes.

The work others (for example the World Resources Institute with Global Forest Watch) and we are doing with satellite data (our collaboration on Starling with Airbus Defence & Space and Sarvision) are great examples of democratising verification of No Deforestation commitments. Anyone can look at the data and monitor what’s happening on the ground. This is a great development that shades any ground-based verification an auditor can do. It’s inexpensive, high quality and not conflicted.

What about No Exploitation commitments? Satellite data can’t spot what’s happening between people unless it leads to natural resource destruction and of course, in some cases, it does, for example when people burn plantations in anger at company behaviour. You can spot that with a satellite but not the reasons behind it. We need other tools to learn about and monitor social relationships.

Part of the problem is that the current vehicle for upscaling knowledge about social conflicts is very often through local NGOs. Typically, these small organisations have little by way of resources. If they do have a motorbike or a car, they too often don’t have cash to buy petrol to get to the field and speak to communities or workers. When they do and if they find issues, they share information with their international colleagues. International NGOs have limited resources too and can’t go after each and every company. Typically, they can only chase the big guys and so if a small company is doing bad things, the NGOs must first establish whether there are links to larger companies, larger buyers. If so, then they can compile the information and look to use it in a campaign but meanwhile, in the field, conflict festers. Next time the local NGO has the resources to get out there, potentially, the conflict has reached new levels and resolution is harder; the company and the community might well be at loggerheads.

This cycle can repeat itself until, left essentially unresolved, violence can erupt. If local or international NGOs are able to jump in and either campaign against the company or at least bring the conflict to public attention, there’s a chance that it can be captured before violence explodes. Yet there seems too many “ifs” and “buts” and long periods of inactive time in an equation that can and has led to people losing their life, community, civil society and local NGO representatives among them. In some cases, auditors can find these conflicts and can create pressure on a company to act by withholding certification. That has definitely happened so the certification audit process is not totally flawed. And yet, there are cases where these conflicts haven’t prevented certification and where community dissent has been ignored.

What if there was a mechanism for local civil society encompassing communities, the local NGOs or just people able to look and share what’s happening to have their voices more readily and immediately heard? Such a mechanism would really democratise verification from a social perspective.

At TFT, we’re developing ways to do this.

We want to support the work of local civil society. We want local civil society to have the resources to document their opinions and findings. We want to promote a dialogue with companies that focuses on creating solutions.

We want to support the development of technologies around the use of mobile phones that would allow, a.k.a Trip Advisor, communities to comment on their relationship with the companies operating in their vicinity.

“The company said they were going to build a school. They did!”

“The company said they were going to compensate us for our land. They didn’t”

“I’m a worker on X plantation and the working conditions are very bad”

“I’m a worker in Y factory and the working conditions are excellent!”

Imagine if this information was able to flow from those directly affected into the public domain and affect change. This might be the Holy Grail and there are reasons why such information would not be easily given but the technology exists to receive and share it and if we were able to get such a system up and running we would really give a lot of power to people who today are essentially powerless because their voices are not sufficiently heard.

Much remains to be done and there is much field-testing required. This is sensitive territory. The key is to get moving and explore, work with people and innovate. Too much violence is visited upon communities and local civil society for us to wait for our traditional approach to work. Well, put simply, it isn’t working. Exploring where different systems and technology can help is critical.

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