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Posts Tagged ‘NGOs’

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog today but this piece in my favorite newspaper, The Guardian (yes, I am the typical lefty reader), made me roll my eyes. The piece is very well intended and generally pretty good advice for charities – Charity funding: How to approach business for help.

I agree that charities or NGOs should be more strategic in their approach to businesses for help. But when I read about the need for NGOs to have more “business realism” in their approach I couldn’t but help think of the need for business to have some “activist realism” in their thinking. It’s easy to ask the other side to be more like you but how about you being a little bit more like the other side too? Like any relationship, it’s about give and take – not just take.

Too often business think that charities should support them more and be more of their “voice”. Sorry, that’s not how it works. It’s a partnership. If you want NGOs to be more of a voice  then you need to be more of a voice as well. No more hiding behind industry associations to do your dirty work or hide you from criticism on key challenges. If you want Greenpeace to slap you on the back instead of on the head then you need to speak up against other businesses who don’t act responsibly. You can’t expect a progressive NGO to support you if you also back regressive policies via another NGO or a business association or lobby group. Or if you keep quiet while other businesses lobby and push for, and argue against, positions held dearly by NGOs - climate change, clean energy, waste, pollution, labour conditions, conflict etc. NGOs expect you to share their world view and not only on one specific issue. This is the “activist realism” they live and work in. This is their “business”.

And how about business in general showing more social conscious? It’s fine to ask NGOs to be more business like but for some reason too many businesses argue that their focus is on the “business bottom line” only and that their only responsibility is towards shareholders. Bah to other stakeholders and society in general. Sounds like double standards to me.

Business needs “activist realism” to realise that their responsibility lies not only with shareholder but to this world they live and operate in. If you see your value as purely making more money for shareholders then you should expect flack from those who are not shareholders. They receive no benefit in their relationship with you except for some products they might or might not really need – so why should they care about your “realism”? Your “realism” might be in direct conflict with their real world. You pollute and they breathe it in. You accelerate climate change and they fry or freeze. You waste and they drown in the plastic bags. You pay peanuts to farmers and they get products that are second rated. You get the picture.

Some “activist realism” will hopefully make companies realize that they have a role to play as citizens of this world. That they have a responsibility towards others through their actions and words. That this responsibility is directly tied to their own long-term sustainability. You kill this world and you kill your business. Easy economics. “Activism realism” will make you sit up and say “no more”. Say it and do it because it is good for your business. Be an “activist” because your company needs to stand up for its own future – one that is tied to the well-being of society. Don’t huddle with those businesses and associations who do not share your world view. Do not care about shareholders who do not care about your business. Shareholder who only care about the next quarter and maximum profits come hell or high water do not care about your business. Only about how your business can line their pockets. They’ll drop you like a hot potato if a better offer comes up.

They are like a bad relationship. They promise you the world but they’ll drop you if someone with more money shows them some shiny object and promise them a better date. Would you take that from a date? Sucker if you will…

Show some “activist realism” by caring about your company’s future. Show some “activist realism” by speaking out against those who threaten your business in hard and soft ways. Show some “activism realist” by being serious about serious investors. Show some “activism realist” when you engage with your stakeholders. Show some “activist realism” when you give us a reason to believe in your worth to society.

Until then – you really don’t have much of a leg to stand on by asking NGOs to show more “business realism”. As my mom used to say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

That’s my “activist realism”. A world where business care about business as part of society and contributing to society. That’s the “business realism” I want to live in.

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Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

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Can you remember the first time the two of you got together. The stolen looks, the uncomfortable moments of silence, the tripping over your sentences, the sweaty palms, the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not thoughts, the private meetings when no one was looking, the uncomfortable first meal together. Yes, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. Just as with any relationship in the early wooing and courting stage, stakeholder engagement is never easy at the start.

Most companies just don’t know how to talk to activists and campaigners. Hey, make no mistake, activist hardly knows how to talk to companies either. But they don’t need companies to like them as much as what companies need them to like them. Or at least leave them alone and not target them.

Don’t feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes not. I remember seeing an anarchist kicking a Nike sign at the battle of Seattle in ’99 – while wearing his Nike shoes and top…

But there are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage and start courting. This is not an exhaustive list. Just a few tips to get you through those first uncomfortable early stages of stakeholder dating.

Firstly, do your homework and find out a bit more about the NGO and what it regards as its ‘bottom line’ – it is unlikely to be financial! I was invited to speak to the global affairs team of a very large pharmaceutical while I was at Oxfam (I headed up the Access to Medicine Campaign for a while). I was shocked to hear that the majority of people at the company thought that Oxfam only worked on health issues. And this happened when Oxfam was in the middle of their Coffee Campaign! Dig around a bit first and find out what the NGO does and what is their mandate. Most of them are registered with a constitution that states what they should focus on and how they should work. This will help you understand whether there is any potential for a longer term constructive relationship – or just a one night stand. Also a good tip when you start dating – know who you are dating. Except if you like blind dates.

Secondly, respect the differences between NGOs by not lumping them all together in the same room for a consultation exercise – NGOs are proud and competitive too. You wouldn’t want them to call a whole bunch of companies together and still expect special treatment just aimed at you. You should respect their differences and treat each one differently. Rather meet each one separately in an environment that works best to put them at ease. Meet them where they feel most comfortable – maybe at their place. Especially if you want to build the foundation for a long-term relationship. And even this should work best for real dates – don’t bring all your prospective dates together in the same room. They might just start sizing each other and you will be left with no date at all.

Thirdly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the only company that is the target of the NGOs campaigning efforts, or that the NGO hasn’t other programs and projects that may have nothing to do with business. Just as with the large pharmaceutical company I mentioned, most NGOs have numerous focus areas and different programs and projects to try and achieve their overall goals. And most large campaigning NGOs have various campaigns going at the same time. They might have one single broad focus, but it plays out in different campaigns and programs. For instance, Greenpeace might be about the environment, but they focus on climate change, oceans, forests, genetic engineering and nuclear issues. So your company might only be a small part of their focus and interest. Same with real life dating. A friendly smile does not mean they want to date. It might just be a friendly smile.

Fourthly, start by talking, learning about each other and building trust rather than starting by expecting ground-breaking strategic partnerships. There might be a few obstacles to overcome – perceptions of what ‘big business’ is all about and a feeling that you want to ‘clean’ yourself by associating with them. Take it easy and just talk. Let them get to know you. Don’t create expectations. Just listen and learn and see where this might take you. Again a good tip for real life dating as well. Don’t ask them to marry you or expect ‘the commitment’ on the first date – it might just scare them off.

Lastly, remember that cash does not necessarily have the same currency as it does when buying products or services from other companies. First and foremost NGOs want to affect change. But they don’t always see money as the way to achieve change. Yes, some of them have huge budgets and operate like multinationals. But they generally have strict guidelines on receiving money from companies. For instance, Oxfam will not accept money from companies that fall within an industry they target in their campaigning. They might not even accept money for travel – never mind for a program. They would rather see you ‘do the right thing’ than pay them to do something. Okay, this one is less relevant for real life dating. Money generally impress prospective dates!

Okay, one more tip. Don’t expect them to agree with you on everything. And don’t make this a prerequisite for your potential relationship. I love my wife to bits. But we only agree 80% of the time. But we don’t let the 20% of the time we disagree define our relationship. No. Focus the relationship on what you have in common and don’t get stuck on the differences. It’s part of being human – we are all different. And the same for companies and NGOs – we are all different. And I learned that I am wrong 20% of the time in any case. Just ask my wife.

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We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.

Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of  better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.

The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.

Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…

The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.

The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.

It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.

The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)

These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.

Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.

The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?

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Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement - ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

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