From confrontation to collaboration: A new relationship with NGOs

From a state of mutual distrust and hostility, the relationship between civil society and business has radically changed to one of collaboration towards common goals.

In 2000, there was a high degree of suspicion between civil society and companies,
and NGO activism mostly focused on exposing corporate misconduct
and abuse. A small, vocal and effective cohort of anti-globalization, anti-trade
and anti-big business organisations drove these efforts, pushing towards stricter
regulation as the only solution. Although relations have changed, civil society
continues to play a critical role in holding companies to account.


BREAKING BARRIERS: ALLIANCES ARISE
Driven by a recognition that many of the challenges currently facing the world
are too complex for any one actor or sector to handle alone, closer alliances
between civil society and business began to emerge. From seeing companies
primarily as a source of funding, business is increasingly viewed as a source of
knowledge, technology and networks – vital to bring about positive changes in
society.

Today, a broad range of initiatives unite civil society and business, from policy
dialogues around developing standards and best practices, to more sophisticated
partnerships based on sharing of knowledge and expertise on more equal
terms.

However, there has been a surge in campaigning against business following
the financial crisis, focusing on tax transparency and wider aspects of accountability. Some NGOs have retained a strong degree of activism in their strategies, such as Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ initiative and Greenpeace.


ARE NGOs LOSING THEIR 'TEETH'?
Many organisations have shifted strategy away from the traditional ‘watchdog’
function towards collaboration, and are increasingly relying on private sources
of funding to exist. This can effect their traditional role of holding companies
to account. In some cases a more nuanced approach is emerging, where an
organisation may work with a company on one issue and campaign against it
on another. Another trend is that many NGOs are themselves becoming hybrid
in nature, as some become part-consultancies providing advisory services to
companies on social and environmental challenges.


BOTTOM UP MOVEMENTS ARE RISING
New technology has in the past decade changed the nature of activism. Social
media campaigns and citizens’ movements such as Occupy Wall Street provide a
greater voice for grassroots movements in civil society. In some cases these have
been vastly more successful in terms of mobilising engagement (most notably
the 2,646 simultaneous ‘People’s Climate Marches’ around the time of the UN
Summit on Climate Change in New York in 2014).

Community collaboration:
The growing number of NGOs in the Global Compact

THE ROLE OF THE GLOBAL COMPACT:
BUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE

As closer alliances have emerged between business and civil society, what has been
the Global Compact’s role in catalysing this change?


A NEUTRAL PLATFORM FOR DUALOUGE AND COLLABORATION

The legitimacy and neutral convening power of the UN has enabled the Global
Compact, perhaps more than any other initiative, to bring different parties,
from civil society, labour, governments, the UN and business, to the table all
over the world. This space has allowed and enabled dialogue between institutions
that were previously not ready, willing or able to cooperate. As such, the
Global Compact has helped build trust in relationships between sectors both at
the global and the local level.

The multi-stakeholder model which sits at the heart of the Global Compact
has played a key role in advancing dialogue and understanding. It has provided
a place where business and non-business organisations can interact, bridging
gaps while deepening engagement and collaboration.

At the local level, most Global Compact Local Networks are multi-stakeholder
in nature, and play a similarly important role as a platform for knowledge-
sharing and learning at the national level.

Civil society organisations are actively involved in developing tools and
resources and participate in events, working groups and steering committees
globally and locally. Nearly all governing bodies of the Global Compact and its
Local Networks comprise members of civil society.


GROWTH IN NUMBERS BUT LACK OF ENGAGEMENT
The number of global and local NGOs participating in the Global Compact has
grown significantly in the past 15 years – from a baseline of zero to more than
2,100 in total today. Civil society organisations play an important
role in sharing knowledge and perspective that complements and supports business,
contributing to the development of tools and practices, as well as vetting
corporate reporting.

However, the fact that only a small fraction of the participating organisations
contribute actively remains a challenge. To counter this, the Global
Compact introduced a Communication on Engagement (CoE) requirement
for non-business participants in 2013. Failure to communicate will, similar to
the COP requirement, result in delisting from the Global Compact database.
The expectation is that this may significantly reduce the number of civil society
organisations participating in the next year.

“When people have the chance to talk to each
other, sitting side by side solving common problems,
very soon they realize that they all care about
some of the major issues in our world.”
HUGUETTE LABELLE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL