ESG reality check: The importance of human rights

I expect this is the case for many who have lived or worked there, and I hope that sharing stories can provide a better insight into aspects of the country that for some may feel too far away to matter.

Over five years ago now, I worked with local teams, communities, and government to run assessments in seven Afghan provinces, where children’s malnutrition programmes are delivered through the health system.

Globally, these treatments do not reach even half of severely malnourished children, and assessments to discover why are an established tool for improvement.

Dedicated men and women gathered balanced and detailed evidence from communities and staff about their perceptions, knowledge and access to health and nutrition issues and services.

Delivery of that evidence at national level, allowed for informed recommendations and commitments for future improvements, including enhancing community health education programmes, agreeing best practice for treatment supply chain management, and better support structures for volunteer health workers.

Through this continued commitment and hard work, the delivery of nutrition services has improved significantly.

This kind of field work inevitably involved movement through insecure areas and, while I was booked onto internal flights and then based in provincial offices, my Afghan colleagues usually travelled by road and went daily to often unfamiliar villages to conduct door-to-door surveys.

On some days, I would hear of violent incidents preventing teams from accessing villages, or when they were warned not to conduct surveillance activities.

These frequent decisions and constant consideration of risks to personal security, restrictions on freely sharing information, and the regular separation of women from key discussions were some of the realities I would get used to and could only challenge with due care and sensitivity.

The limitations that I saw and felt on what I consider to be basic human rights, along with restrictions on other freedoms of equality and expression, means that I will forever appreciate and respect them differently.

Of course, this was not isolated to Afghanistan, and although insecurity brought challenges to the assessments, many of the other findings became familiar to me over the next years, sometimes in very different contexts.

For example, access to basic needs, such as WaSH (Water Sanitation and Health), Food Security and Education, and the problems of too many individuals continuing to live without them.

At the highest level, global development agencies and partners have worked through technical evaluations and practical and academic learning to determine how best to meet these basic needs on a global basis.

They have also worked to provide structures that all members of society can use, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and a number of international human rights conventions, including the UN Global Compact (UNGC) tailored specifically for the private sector.

Although governments must deal in politics, investors do play a critical role in achieving these global goals, and the calls for more serious and urgent commitment, where I now focus my efforts, are only growing louder.

Human rights violations must be included in this and are not an issue faced  only in the developing world, they can hit closer to home too.

At the very least, it should be a fundamental requirement for the investment community to understand how companies are operating, and for investors to challenge companies on issues facing communities and employees throughout their supply chains, and in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

Although this will not directly help the political situation in Afghanistan, it will lead to more accountability, create a better quality of life, and may impact people displaced by conflict.

While the situation escalates in Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine the fear of what the future might hold for citizens, and the terrible reality of what’s happening within communities and to individuals who have supported progress, and will most likely go largely unreported.

But by ensuring that human rights are recognised as an important issue, fund groups and investors can start to make a difference where this is being dealt with on a daily basis, and not only when there is a humanitarian crisis.

And while getting the investments right is important, I hope there will also be recognition for the continued support that is needed for the programmes that continue in Afghanistan through organisations such as UNICEF (and partners) or AfghanAid’s emergency response, as well as the people who will inevitably be displaced.

Nikki Williamson is a responsible investment analyst at Quilter Investors



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