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Civil-society organisations

Talking to managers

by Sabine Balk

In brief

By talking to companies, NGOs can achieve improvements in working conditions: A tea plantation owned by the Unilever Group in Kenya.

By talking to companies, NGOs can achieve improvements in working conditions: A tea plantation owned by the Unilever Group in Kenya.

For more than 20 years, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have conducted dialogues with business managers. The aim is to involve the private sector in solving global problems. A current Südwind study assesses German NGOs’ experience of exchange with private enterprise.

The study’s findings are based on 18 interviews with German NGO representatives as well as an analysis of current publications on the subject – in particular, a three-year research project in Britain on stakeholder dialogues. The author of the Südwind study notes that German NGOs have considerable dialogue experience, and many have become selective about participating in such events. The reason is that activists see risks of being co-opted by business. They insist that the purpose of talks should be clearly agreed from the outset.

NGOs have learned from experience – the study shows – that dialogue can be time consuming. If there is no foreseeable prospect of success, they tend to reject inquiries from companies.

Most of the persons interviewed believe that large-scale events involving numerous business and NGO representatives are particularly unproductive. Rather than waste energy this way, many respondents recommend other, more effective means of raising public awareness.

Persons matter

Whether a bond of trust is formed between dialogue partners and whether dialogues produce concrete outcomes depends largely on the individuals involved and their ability to cooperate with one another. A dialogue works only if all parties observe shared rules. Moreover, NGOs want to be in a position to define topics and set agendas, rather than having things dictated by companies. A number of respondents stated that it took three to five years to build a trusting relationship.

In line with the findings from Britain, experienced NGO activists in Germany stated that it is essential to put oneself in the other’s shoes. The economic constraints that companies face must be taken seriously. Respondents report that “long and fruitful dialogue” with tangible results can be achieved when company representatives open up to different perspectives as well.

According to the Südwind study, German NGOs have discovered that cooperation on the implementation of environmental and social projects is particularly successful with small environmentally-minded companies. The author notes a difference between environmental groups and development organisations, however. The latter were far more sceptical about dialogue with business and were less experienced than environmental groups. That may be due, in some cases, to another finding: NGOs that focus particularly on human rights – as many developmental NGOs do – mainly gear their activities towards governments, so they are not interested much in dialogue with private-sector managers.

Implementation of laws

All NGO activists interviewed acknowledged that one purpose of dialogue with business is to establish systems of state regulation that prevent environmental degradation and human-rights violations. They want exchange with the private sector to improve and accelerate the acceptance and enforcement of laws.

The author points out that measuring the success of dialogue with business is sometimes simple, but can also be quite complex, depending on the purpose of the dialogue. If the aim is to get a company to source components in a particular way, verification is easy. It is harder, though still possible, to check labour conditions on a plantation. It is next to impossible, however, to assess the impact of dialogue on the attainment of overarching goals like nature conservation or human-rights observance.

Sabine Balk

Südwind, 2015: Reden ist Silber, Kampagnen sind Gold? Erfahrungen deutscher NRO mit Unternehmensdialogen (only in German).

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