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ESG Reality Check: the importance of human rights

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Date: 31 August 2021

The importance of human rights issues

As events continue to unfold in Afghanistan and the impact the change in regime may have on the population becomes clearer, Nikki Williamson, responsible investment analyst at Quilter Investors, shares her thoughts on why human rights as an ESG issue is not just theoretical, and looks at the impact it can have in the real world.

My memories of working in Afghanistan have come back into sharp focus with the terrifying events currently unfolding across the country. 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 readers may feel too far away to matter.

My own experience, over five years ago now, doesn’t provide me special political or historic insights; and the personal impact of being targeted, or losing civil liberties, though real and lasting, is insignificant next to what many Afghans are now facing. But part of my story that I can share is what I witnessed through my work, and the development progress that was made possible, only with the active collaboration, commitment, and personal sacrifice of many Afghans.

Over the course of a year, 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. Most agreed that these communities must also be heard and, within reason but not without risk, they persisted.

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.

Although governments must deal in politics, the private sector and investors play a critical role in achieving these global goals, and there is a call for more serious and urgent commitment.

Of course, this was not isolated to Afghanistan, and although insecurity brought challenges to these assessments and the programmes, many of the other findings from this work became familiar to me over the next years, sometimes in very different contexts. For example, my understanding of 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, which has historically worked outside some of these frameworks.

Although governments must deal in politics, the private sector and investors play a critical role in achieving these global goals, and there is a call for more serious and urgent commitment, which is where I now focus my efforts.

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

As I sit in safety today at my desk in London, while the situation escalates in Afghanistan, I think of all the people I met and their resolve to be part of their country’s development and how this now puts them in extra danger.

I find it hard to imagine the fear of what the future might hold or the difficulty of some of the decisions that are being made. And as media coverage swirls between news stories, and the terrible reality of what’s happening within communities goes largely unreported, I hope readers will recognise that when we talk of ESG issues and human rights, this important issue is being dealt with on a daily basis. With this in mind I hope that more people will support the programmes that continue in Afghanistan through organisations such as UNICEF or AfghanAid’s emergency response, as well as the people who will inevitably be displaced.

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Nikki Williamson

Senior ESG Analyst

Nikki Williamson Senior ESG Analyst Nikki is an operations, research and ESG specialist working in the Quilter Investors’ responsible investment team, working to support the integration of ESG throughout the business. She joined Quilter Investors in April 2019, transitioning back to asset management having led the operations for the retail platform customer research business at Boring Money. Prior to this, Nikki spent several years working with UNICEF in Afghanistan, South Sudan and globally to improve access to children’s malnutrition programmes and health services, as well as working with the British Red Cross on psychosocial support research. Nikki has around 12 years of investment operations experience, predominantly with Thames River Capital where she supported the property investment team and worked on large scale operational transition programmes. Nikki holds the Certificate in ESG Investing and the Investment Management Certificate, an MSc in Development and Urbanisation from London South Bank University and a degree in Maths and Philosophy from the University of Manchester.