University of Denver Civil Resistance Research Report

Civil Resistance and Corporate Behavior:

Mapping Trends and Assessing Impact

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Principal Investigators:

  • Erica Chenoweth, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver
  • Tricia Olsen, Business Ethics and Legal Studies, University of Denver

Corporations can be implicated in human rights violations involving their employees and the communities in which they operate. Although corporations function within a framework of national and international human rights norms, such as the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—and several industries have self-regulated, promoting sector-specific standards—corporations may be most responsive not to top-down standards or enforcement, but to citizen-led resistance. What sorts of civil resistance are most effective in gaining concessions and from which corporations? What corporate characteristics—such as sector, market share, reputational value, or leadership changes—and contextual factors, like rule of law, influence the likelihood that corporations will make concessions? In this paper, a University of Denver (DU) research team constructed a new dataset to answer these questions, gathering observational data in Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa. The project was a pilot, assembling the first such dataset to study how citizens organize against corporate human rights abuses and how corporations operating outside the United States respond to this civil resistance. Key findings include:

  • Multiple events of civil resistance coordinated over time are more effective than a single, one-off event; the more events, the more likely it was that the corporation made concessions.
  • Corporations undergoing leadership change were more likely to make concessions—suggesting that whether or not the civil resistance contributed to leadership change, such change presents an opening for progress on human rights.
  • Corporations in countries reliant on labor-intensive extraction (coal or minerals) are more likely to make concessions than those in countries reliant on capital-intensive extraction (oil).
  • Corporations in countries with more robust rule of law are more likely to make concessions than those operating in countries with less legal accountability, suggesting both that working to improve rule of law may ultimately make corporate concessions more systemically likely and that civil society should evaluate the political and economic contexts in which they, and their target corporations, operate to better assess the probability that civil resistance will yield change.

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Research Publication (2.01 MB, PDF)

DFG Project Description

Through the USAID-funded Democracy Fellows and Grants (DFG) program, IIE brings research, innovation, and expertise to support USAID’s development work in the sector of democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG). Through the Democracy Fellows component, IIE manages experts in niche DRG disciplines who are embedded within USAID bureaus and offices to provide direct support to USAID’s work in their technical specialties. Through the Research and Innovation Grants component, IIE manages the production and publication of research—including the reports featured here as part of IIE’s democracy research series—that brings new learning, evidence, and knowledge to USAID to influence decisions about program design in the DRG sector.