Why/how should corporates defend civil society space? Good new paper + case studies

I saw some effective academic-NGO cooperation last week, and even better, it involved some of my LSE students.

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The occasion was the launch of Beyond Integrity: Exploring the role of business in preserving civil society space, commissioned and published by the Charities Aid Foundation and written by Silky Agrawal, Brooks Reed and Riya Saxena, three of last year’s LSE Masters students. They researched and wrote the report as part of a student consultancy project, and CAF were so impressed that they decided to publish it. Result.

First the content: the authors went looking for cases where businesses had got involved in defending civil society from attacks by government, and identified four really interesting cases (see table). They interviewed a number of the players in each case.

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They found some ‘key learnings’ (bit depressing to see them already adopting the barbarisms of aidspeak!):

  • Firms in consumer-facing industries are responsive to large-scale social movements that raise awareness regarding human rights abuses;
  • Privately owned companies with strong ethics and values tied into the core business model, led by engaged leaders, are likely to respond to civil society;
  • At times, privately held dialogues between key stakeholders and host governments can be more effective at initiating positive action than a public challenge, as the respect and dignity of each stakeholder is maintained;
  • Leveraging formal and informal cross-sectoral networks is instrumental in convincing corporations to act on behalf of civil society.

The ensuing panel discussion was excellent (even though I was chairing it). Big cheeses from industry, the Clinton Administration (Bill, not Hillary), UN and Human Rights discussed the report — if only all LSE students got this kind of recognition before they’ve even graduated……

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Some points that emerged:

The importance of individuals and organizations that bridge the corporate and civil society spheres. In Cambodia the Ethical Trading Initiative and ILO played the role, but in Angola Brian Leber, CEO of an ethical jewellery company, took the lead

An interesting discussion on the bigger spread in behaviours among private firms — they can be ethical leaders (like Brian Leber’s company), or they can be corporate villains devoid of the restraints or accountability imposed on public companies.

Companies, just like NGOs, suffer from institutional amnesia, as staff turn over and no-one remembers that useful contact they had in the Indonesian trade union movement ten years ago. Long term partnerships can help retain access to those networks even when people move on.

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A nice 2x2 on the range of corporate interest and action.

The business case for acting to defend civil society space varies according to the sector and country, but overall, human rights defenders act as a form of unpaid due diligence for companies, keeping them alert to risks emerging within the system. So it makes sense to defend them.

However, company agency is difficult and can easily backfire into nationalist accusations of foreign meddling. Legitimacy is an issue for company activism as for any other player — corporations are not primarily accountable to local citizens or governments (except through the law). An issue will be more legitimate if it directly affects core company operations (staff, shareholders, brand, communities where they operate). ‘Companies should not become political campaigners — they should keep a clear link to their operations’. Eg Anglo American was able to lobby hard on the South African’s denial of the HIV pandemic in South Africa because 25% of its workers were HIV-positive.

Due to their big investments and royalties, extractive companies often have more access to government than, say, consumer goods companies, but their higher fixed investments also undermines their ability to take action — if you’ve sunk $2bn into an oil well, you’re at a disadvantage (but if you’re about to, you’ve got a good bargaining hand).

Multi stakeholder approaches help with legitimacy (by involving local actors, not just foreigners) and so can dilute the risk to the company of taking unilateral action. Yet the M-S approach seems barely to have spread beyond extractives (EITI) and consumer goods (ETI again). What about construction? Banks? Electronics?

I was left wanting more on at least three fronts:

Why no government interviewees? Would have loved to hear what sympathisers within government made of corporate activism

I would love to see a typology of contexts, governments etc that suggests when companies should

  • Act alone v collectively
  • Act in public v a private word in the government’s ear
  • Call on the company’s home country government to take action

Reactive v Proactive — all four cases are reactive — companies taking action when something bad happens, eg to defend a human rights defender from attack. Is that because they are more visible, or because that’s the only realistic approach? Any chance to get them engaged on e.g. legal challenges to restrictive new CSO laws?

Silky (S.Agrawal13@lse.ac.uk), Brooks (B.Reed@lse.ac.uk) and Riya (R.Saxena4@lse.ac.uk) are all graduating and available for hire — you could do worse!