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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
close this folderToward an Understanding of Business-NGO Relations
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View the documentTheoretical Perspectives on Business-NGO Relations

(introduction...)

One of the goals of this paper is to offer a clearer understanding of why and how business-NGO relations on sustainable development have begun to change in recent years. It is hoped that this will promote new thinking about the future role of corporations in the sustainable development of the South. As noted earlier, research on the specific area of business-NGO relations on sustainable development has, until recently, been limited. The literature on environmental management, civil society, conflict theory, public-private partnerships and inter-organizational collaboration offers important insights of relevance to this discussion. Recent action-oriented research on business-environmental group partnerships presents additional useful perspectives. Before considering what the three case studies reveal about the characteristics of business-NGO relations, we review briefly some of these theoretical perspectives.

Theoretical Perspectives on Business-NGO Relations

Despite the growing prominence of the idea of business-NGO partnership, environmental and socio-economic conflicts continue to dominate the global, national and local political landscapes. With reference to the United States, Denise Lach notes that “environmental conflict appears to be increasing exponentially”, with most communities facing difficult choices and decisions related to “cleanup, restoration, preservation [and/or] management” (1996:211). Lach describes multiple sources of conflict:

Conflict arises when interests about resource allocation diverge as they inherently do in our heterogeneous society. Conflict arises when those who benefit from the status quo are challenged by those who seek change. And conflict arises when affected stakeholders differ on their definitions of the problem.... [E]nvironmental decision making exists at the junction of science, politics and economics, each with its own criteria for distributing resources (1996:212).

Rather than seeing conflict as an obstacle to sustainable development, many social scientists would agree that it is a central feature of political and social processes:

[N]ot only is conflict always with us, it contains the seeds of beneficial change as well as destructive consequences. Contrary to the common view that conflict is always a negative force that must be managed to resolution, conflict can be a driving force for social change.... Fundamentally, conflict forces all of us to clarify and adapt our perspectives in response to changing human interests and environmental conditions (Lach, 1996:212).

As agents of conflict and controversy, radical activist groups have been reviled as “na and dangerous” proponents of “extreme positions” (Lewis, 1995:250). However, the absence of such a critical voice can also be a potential impediment to sustainable development. The confrontational tactics of radical environmentalism play an essential role in identifying the need to change the unsustainable nature of global industrial society:

[T]he words and deeds of radical environmentalists today may be a window to the future state of the world. And to the chagrin of those who now control the Earth’s ecology, whether that window shows a living green world or a wasteland may very likely depend on the success or failure of radical environmentalism (Manes, 1990:12).

Despite what Christopher Manes describes as a “surly symbiosis” between radical and moderate environmentalists, even Earth First! founder Dave Foreman acknowledges that less radical groups and methods are needed (Manes, 1990:19).

Although the idea of partnership has a long history in the world of business, there has been limited theoretical work to date related to business-NGO partnerships. Social science researchers have examined public-private or social partnerships in the United Kingdom and the United States (Waddock, 1988; Mackintosh, 1992; Bailey, 1994). Others have looked at the general field of inter-organizational collaboration (Gray, 1989; Gray and Wood, 1991; Wood and Gray, 1991). In terms of broader societal issues, Riane Eisler envisions “a new integrated partnership politics that factors in matters that have been largely ignored in most analyses of how to move to a humane future” (1996:565).

Even less work has been carried out on the specific area of business-NGO partnerships for sustainable development. To redress this gap, a small but growing body of action-oriented, generally non-academic research on business-NGO environmental partnerships has begun to emerge in recent years from which four broadly different partnership typologies can be identified:

McKinsey and Co. (1992): In its work for the United States President’s Commission on Environmental Quality, McKinsey and Co. proposed a way of analysing partnerships according to their intended impact on regulation. They attempted to determine whether partnerships pre-empt, inform or respond to environmental legislation. Despite its legislative focus, their framework did not consider how partnerships might result from disenchantment with the legislative or regulatory process.

Frederick Long and Mathew Arnold (1995): In their work for the Management Institute for Environment and Business (MEB), Long and Arnold identified four types of environmental partnerships:

· Pre-emptive partnerships attempt to defuse an already or potentially confrontational situation.

· Coalescing partnerships bring together traditional rivals with different motivations but shared goals that can be achieved together.

· Exploration partnerships attempt to research issues of joint concern.

· Leverage partnerships are initiatives that aim to pool resources to allow partners to reap higher returns than would be gained alone after modest investments of time and money, similar to the partnering approach in the business world.

SustainAbility (1996): In its strategic review of British Petroleum’s relationships with environmental NGOs (ENGOs), SustainAbility outlined nine types of company-ENGO relationships based on the degree of commonality in goals between actors. Business-NGO relations range from those where there is no commonality (“challenge”) to those characterized by high commonality (“strategic joint venture”). In between, there is a range of types including “sparring partner”, “charitable support”, and “strategy dialogue”. This approach provides business leaders with analytical tools to better understand existing and future relations with NGOs.

Murphy and Bendell (1997): In our book In the Company of Partners, we offer three models of business-NGO partnership where NGOs attempt to influence business policy or operational issues:

· Process-oriented partnerships involve NGOs with internal company management processes in some way. They often focus on broad issues such as environmental policies, eco-efficiency strategies or improving the performance of suppliers.

· Project-oriented partnerships focus on discrete projects to achieve objectives with significant implications for core business practice. They differ from process partnerships, as the relationship does not necessarily involve NGOs with internal management decisions.

· Product-oriented partnerships involve NGOs in specific product development and/or endorsement. The difference between these partnerships and process-oriented initiatives is that they do not involve the NGO with internal company management decisions. Unlike project-oriented partnerships, they focus on delivering improvements in products or product sales.

Together the above frameworks describe a range of existing business-NGO relationships, including those involving other actors. Although the SustainAbility typology describes a larger number of interactions, neither it nor any of the others fully explains the diversity of business-NGO relations on sustainable development. Most, if not all of the typologies, are very Northern-centric and fail to consider the contingent relationship between conflict and partnership. They also appear to be more concerned with the nature of the relationships and the benefits accruing to the partners rather than considering the extent to which business-NGO relationships affect the inter-organizational problem domain of sustainable development. In this regard, there are related questions about the extent to which business-NGO partnerships actually embody sustainable development principles. Furthermore, most of the research to date fails to explore the wider implications of closer and more collaborative business-NGO relationships, namely for democracy, governance, regulation and global social change.