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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 1: The changing nature of business-ngo relations
View the documentConflict and Collaboration
View the documentBusiness Responses to Sustainable Development
Open this folder and view contentsNGO Responses to Sustainable Development
Open this folder and view contentsToward an Understanding of Business-NGO Relations
Open this folder and view contentsConclusions: The Characteristics of Collaboration
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Conflict and Collaboration

The road to partnership often begins with and depends upon conflict. Back in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring launched the contemporary Northern environmental movement with an exposn the harmful effects of pesticides upon people and their natural environments. The chemical industry responded with a scathing attack on environmentalists, branding them “a motley lot ranging from superstitious illiterates and cultists to educated scientists” (quoted in Hoffman, 1996:53). Thirty years later in the lead-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, Stephan Schmidheiny’s Changing Course was intended as a clarion call for global business to see environmental pressures as new business opportunities. Changing Course launched the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) and offered 38 case studies of best environmental practice, including chemical producers Ciba-Geigy, Dow, DuPont and Shell. Greenpeace responded with a pre-emptive attack on Changing Course hours before its official launch in May 1992. And weeks later at the Earth Summit, the NGO released The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash (Bruno, 1992), which castigated nine of the BCSD companies for their poor environmental records. From Silent Spring to Changing Course, relations between representatives of business and the NGO movement have for the most part remained strongly antagonistic. The mid-1995 confrontation between Shell and Greenpeace over the disposal of the Brent Spar offshore oil installation confirmed the long-standing image of two tribes engaged in perpetual war over values, words and ideas.

There is another side to the business-NGO story. While the dominant pattern of business-NGO relations remains antagonistic, in recent years some businesses and NGOs have been quietly working together to overcome their differences. In many cases, NGO protest and other forms of campaigning have forced business to the negotiating table. For example, the high-profile Greenpeace-Shell confrontation eventually led Shell-UK to engage the Environment Council, a British NGO, to facilitate a series of European-wide “Dialogue Forums” between the company and a wide range of NGOs and other stakeholders on alternative disposal options for the Brent Spar. In late 1996, Shell-UK’s Fay said that his company “had no option but to pursue the goal of sustainable development” (quoted in Cowe, 1996:17).

Recent stories from the South also reveal both collaboration and conflict between business and NGOs. Although relatively few in number, Southern business-NGO partnerships are beginning to emerge. In Zimbabwe, the development NGO Organisation of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP) and Central African Batteries (CAB) have been working together since 1992. The ORAP-CAB partnership is a formal joint venture that creates small businesses to sell or lease batteries to households and to develop solar-powered recharging centres. This helps to promote a more regular and sustainable energy source for local lighting (UNEP/PWBLF, 1994).

A different example of business-NGO collaboration comes from Brazil, where the Environmental Institute (OIA) has facilitated co-operation between NGOs, local authorities, community associations and various companies on the Biomass Nutrient Recycling Project. One outcome of this project was the development of the Petropolis Waste Water Treatment Plant as a commercial venture of OIA (INEM, 1996). Another example comes from Asia, where an NGO, Citizens Alliance for Consumer Protection (CACP), in the Republic of Korea organizes high-profile media events aimed at getting large corporations to sign agreements related to cleaner production, energy efficiency and other environmental matters.

Quite a different story emerges from many other parts of the South, where business-NGO confrontation remains the order of the day. For example, in early 1997 the proposed Essa sea-salt plant joint venture between the Mitsubishi corporation and the Mexican government came under attack by a coalition of Mexican and American NGOs and activists. The campaign raised concerns about the plant’s potential impact on grey whale habitats in the San Ignacio lagoon. Indeed, throughout the South many NGOs continue to gather information about planned or actual development projects, making data available to local and indigenous groups and NGOs in other countries. Related strategies include organizing corporate boycotts and promoting fair trade alternatives (Kiefer and Benjamin, 1993:231).

To date, there appears to be greater evidence of business-NGO partnerships in the North than in the South. Whereas there has been a long history of business-NGO relations and consumer politics in the North, most NGOs in the South initially “allied themselves with popular movements to oppose the state, while for all practical purposes, ignoring the market and its institutions” (de Oliveira and Tandon, 1994:7). In the face of globalization and state deregulation, however, Southern NGOs are beginning to recognize the need to influence more directly, and in some cases collaborate with, business.

While many within the global NGO movement continue to view any form of business-NGO collaboration with deep suspicion, others see improved relations with the private sector as a necessary tactic in trying to change unsustainable and unjust business behaviour. Some suggest that NGOs can have it both ways:

[T]he exploration of opportunities for co-operative action does not imply that citizens [and NGOs] should renounce their right and duty to question and oppose corporations - and states - whenever their behavior proves detrimental to the common good. In any case, labor disputes and conflicts over environmental or consumer issues will hardly disappear from the agenda of civil society (de Oliveira and Tandon, 1994:7).

The apparent paradox of NGOs seeking both protest - and partnership-based relationships with business reflects a need for “a new way of thinking about our problems and our futures” (Handy, 1994:11). The management of paradox, Handy suggests, is about living with contradictions, not necessarily solving them. Managing paradox is also about mitigating the worst aspects, enjoying the best and using the experience to find “clues to the way forward” (Handy, 1994:13).

In the following section, we examine a range of business responses to sustainable development, from a limited focus on pollution prevention to preliminary efforts by some companies to embrace a broader sustainability agenda.