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Limits to collaboration

A defining feature of successful NGO-business collaborations, according to environmental consultant Mark Rudolph (the force behind the Care Coalition), is that such collaborations require all players to 'check their biases at the door'.

Yet for some seasoned participants, this can be a double-edged sword. For example, one NGO director wondered how helpful silence was, when a corporate participant might deserve a good lambasting for its unsavory practices.

Yet such friction need not need manifest itself at the table, at the expense of constructive dialogue. Indeed, groups like the Pembina Institute pride themselves on the fact that participation in constructive dialogues or business relationships does not preclude the possibility that Pembina might need to criticize other aspects of a corporation's behaviour.

Nevertheless, it is clear that - at least in the view of some - leaving one's prejudices at the door can sound uncomfortably akin to suspending one's critical faculties. For this reason, argues Mark Rudolph, partnerships are not necessarily well-suited for 'purist' NGOs who see themselves as playing a watchdog role.

Government involvement in multi-stakeholder forums can be an obstacle to consensus, argues Lois Corbett, former executive director of TEA. Corbett even suggests that national multi-stakeholder dialogues are often 'doomed to failure'.

Even if the government is not at the table, it is usually lurking nearby. Participants know that even where NGOs and businesses can find common ground and identify mutually agreeable solutions, these solutions must pass muster with government authorities.

Rudolph believes partnerships are filling a vacuum which has built up from years of government spending cutbacks. The bottom line, he says, is that governments 'often don't have the capacity to deal with public policy matters'. This does not mean, however, that government is keen to adopt solutions without first scrutinizing them.

The mandate of government remains that of representing the interests of all citizens. Accordingly, any NGO-business collaboration which seeks to export ready-made solutions to governments will first need to assess how representative it is. Solutions may suit the interests of industry and of NGOs, but they are not automatically appropriate for grafting onto wider society. In particular, they should reflect the interests of all stakeholders.

Although Paul Griss of the new Directions Group (see case studies) is an advocate of NGO-business collaboration, he worries that a backlash could be brewing - particularly where western businesses and western NGOs devise solutions which fail to take into account the needs of stakeholders in the developing world. He points out that the Forestry Stewardship Certification scheme has already come under fire for 'imposing western values onto other cultures'.

He suggests that a fuller debate is needed about the role - and the limits of that role - of the corporate sector and civil society in global governance.

There is no guarantee that all NGOs will be delighted with solutions that are brokered by their more pragmatic cousins. Some have expressed concern that those groups which are too closely aligned with business may not be selling their soul so much as selling short the movement's position.

Keith Stewart of TEA worries that engaging in some processes means that the NGOs will compromise too much on key positions. As a case in point, he highlights the environmental movement's definition of the so-called precautionary principle - a definition which, he says, it should be prepared to defend.

Others, meanwhile, lament that the willingness of NGOs to work more closely with the private sector will mean that the environmental issues which get the most attention are those which are of most interest to the corporate sector. There is a danger that finite NGO resources will be diverted away from less appealing issues like species conservation towards more pressing business concerns such as pollution prevention.

Despite such concerns about relations with the corporate sector, one thing is striking: there is a high degree of respect between key figures working within the NGO sector. Thus, while one campaigner expressed disquiet about organizations such as the Pembina Institute and their close ties to industry, the same person expressed faith in the integrity and commitment of Pembina's frontline staff.

Ken Ogilvie, of Pollution Probe, puts it more bluntly: 'I'm not aware of one group that I think could be bought out'.

Most agree that personal relationships, and the trust arising from these relationships, are critical to the success of any NGO-business collaboration. The personalities involved in these collaborations help to reinforce the credibility of these exercises.

The following section discusses some of the ingredients which make for successful, credible, collaborations.

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