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close this bookBusiness Responsibility for Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 2000, 62 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAcronyms
close this folderSummary/Résumé/Resumen
View the documentSummary
View the documentRésumé
View the documentResumen
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentI. Boarding the Bandwagon
close this folderII. Meaningful Change?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIncipient and piecemeal progress
View the documentRhetoric versus reality
View the documentNot seeing the forest for the trees
close this folderIII. The Forces of Change
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View the documentEconomics
View the documentPolitics
View the documentStructural factors
View the documentIV. Limits to Change
close this folderV. Moving Forward
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVoluntary initiatives
View the documentPartnerships
View the documentRethinking regulation and partnerships
View the documentBuilding alliances
View the documentBibliography


Growing attention to the issue of partnerships involving business and other development actors is generally justified on the basis that new forms of governance, involving multi-stakeholder collaboration rather than confrontation, are necessary in an increasingly globalized and integrated world. Not only do governments lack the power to shape contemporary patterns of economic development, but many of their powers are actually being weakened. In such a context, it is argued, the private sector and civil society need to work together and with government in “public-private partnerships” to deal with the “complex and interdependent issues, which can only be tackled by co-operative, integrated and inclusive solutions, both within... and between nations” (Nelson, 1996:13).

There is considerable appeal in this, seemingly, pragmatic, constructive and co-operative approach. Indeed it is so appealing that many organizations are rushing headlong into “partnerships” with business without much critical reflection on their implications. In practice, there are a number of concerns that need to be addressed:

· How will the agenda of the partners change? There is concern that NGO-business partnerships can be part and parcel of a process of “incorporation” or co-optation, in which the critical positions of public officials and activists are increasingly diluted. Through partnerships, many NGOs move along a path that takes them from “activist” to “consultant”, selling technical advice and other services. This is particularly evident in the field of corporate environmental management and social auditing. As one activist/researcher turned independent verifier once confided to this author: “Look at me. Having had to work so closely with CEOs, I’m beginning to look and sound like one. At some point a new generation of NGOs will probably have to come along to check on people like me”. A related problem concerns self-censorship and reduced freedom of expression among officials of international agencies. As some UN organizations get closer to business there is a feeling among certain staff members that their freedom to criticize business is being constrained.

· How will partnerships affect the capacity of different actors to influence decision-making processes? Partnerships enable business to have greater access not only to civil society organizations, but also to policy makers in government and international organizations. Partnerships can be used as a mechanism for so-called “institutional capture”, whereby corporate interests come to dominate or heavily influence the decision-making processes of public-interest institutions. There is concern that this has occurred, for example, in the field of food standards and environmental certification, through such institutions as the Codex Alimentarius Commission43 and ISO (Dawkins, 1995; Krut, 1997; Krut and Gleckman, 1998). There is also concern that corporate interests are exercising undue influence in certain United Nations specialized agencies both through funding and participation in consultation and policy processes. An analysis of the difficulties experienced by the World Wide Fund for Nature in implementing a more “people-oriented” approach to environmental protection, suggests that this is partly due to resistance from organizational structures that must respond to the interests of corporate partners (Jeanrenaud, 1998).

43 The Codex Alimentarius Commission was set up by FAO and WHO in 1963 to establish food safety and quality standards.

· What criteria are used to select partners? Organizations, such as United Nations agencies, which have considerable legitimacy because of their association with ethical causes, need to be particularly careful about whom they select as partners. Whereas many NGOs have had to struggle to get recognition within the UN process, the vetting procedures to which some corporations have been subjected appear to be lax. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been criticized for the way in which it has gone about choosing corporate partners for the Global Sustainable Development Facility (TRAC, 1999). As indicated in Box 2 above, various TNCs involved in this initiative have been singled out for their poor environmental and/or social record. The World Health Organization (WHO) is also promoting a closer relationship with business. There are concerns, however, that the guidelines that are currently being drafted for collaboration with the private sector are weak and that the consultation process for drafting them has not included key stakeholders. Similarly, UNHCR has recently been criticized for having linked up with certain corporations to form the Business Humanitarian Forum, an association set up in January 1999 to develop relations between business and humanitarian organizations (UN Wire, 1999).

· An agenda of change, which aims to promote sustainable development, will need to be backed by strong institutions and alliances. At best, the process of building partnerships may be a way of broadening this base of support and engaging as allies certain actors normally associated with the status quo. At worst, partnerships may split alliances and activist institutions. There are concerns that this has occurred to some extent within civil society movements, as some organizations decide to participate in “multi-stakeholder dialogues” with TNCs, and others stay away - possibly becoming marginalized in the process (Rowell, 1999). As indicated below, some forms of NGO-business partnerships have resulted in tensions between NGOs and trade unions. There is also concern that some United Nations organizations are being divided, as certain departments warmly embrace collaboration with business and others oppose it.

Perhaps the most significant concern with some forms of voluntary initiatives and partnerships is that they may serve to weaken key drivers of corporate responsibility, namely governmental and intergovernmental regulation, the role of trade unions and collective bargaining, as well as more critical forms of NGO activism and civil society protest. If one examines the history of corporate environmental and social responsibility, and some of the major reforms of corporate policies and practices - from the early 1900s when Ford and others in the United States introduced improved working conditions, to the post-World War II years when social welfare legislation was scaled up in Europe, to the early 1980s when the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was adopted, to the recent response of Shell to environmental and social issues - one or a combination of these factors has been crucial.