Individual companies should partner with NGOs in many of their everyday activities that involve local communities. “It is a mistake sometimes reflected in media coverage to think that companies and NGOs are locked into an immutably hostile relationship,” BP chief executive Sir John Browne told an audience at Chatham House in London in early 2002. “That isn’t true. Companies benefit from scrutiny and challenge, and in some of the most complex areas in which we work, the progress we can make is dependent on the cooperation and skills of NGOs.”
BP exemplifies the principle. The U.K.-based energy company works closely with CARE and local NGOs in assisting communities in Colombia. It also works with the Red Cross to help displaced refugees in war-ravaged Angola and with the World Wildlife Fund to conserve the natural environment in Indonesia and Brazil. McDonald’s works with Conservation International to prevent the loss of biodiversity arising from the practices of the fast-food giant’s agricultural suppliers around the world. Nike, Gap, the World Bank, and the International Youth Foundation are working under the umbrella of the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities to improve the environment for workers on the entire supply chain that extends to countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China; included in their efforts is the provision of health care and education. American Express has been working with the Brazilian government and local professional institutes to help prepare young students for careers in travel and tourism.
The idea of corporate partnership with NGOs and governments will become an ever-bigger challenge for business leaders. When it comes to NGOs, for example, CEOs will need to develop a strategy every bit as sophisticated as those they apply to potential corporate partners. The number of NGOs is now vast — in the tens of thousands — and although some are only out to protest and disrupt corporate activities and globalization, most want to solve problems constructively. One task for business leaders is to identify whom they can work with, on both a global and a local level. In addition, they must realize that even the NGOs most serious about working with multinational companies play a role much different from that of a company. NGOs are advocates for specific policies; they are not required to make the kinds of trade-offs among a set of constituencies that CEOs must make. Under the best of circumstances, these partnerships will not be without serious disagreements, but they are crucial alliances, for each party brings essential skills and interests to a set of problems. Only through this kind of collaboration can immensely complicated social issues be addressed effectively.
Agenda Item 4: Business leaders should develop more rigorous strategies in dealing with antiglobalization protest groups.
Ever since the 1999 demonstrations against globalization in Seattle, corporations and governments have been in disarray when it comes to responding to the overall protest movement itself. To be sure, developing a coherent strategy is difficult, given the wide range of NGOs that are involved and the disparate concerns they have raised. These concerns range from closing down the World Bank to promoting the human rights of women. The NGOs are well organized and well financed, and they have used the Internet to coordinate a much more effective public-relations campaign than have global companies, international institutions, or national governments.
The first part of a corporate strategy should entail the approaches already discussed: practicing good corporate citizenship, partnering with constructive NGOs, and so forth. But this is not enough. NGOs have had too much of a free ride in identifying themselves with the public interest. They have acquired the high ground of public opinion without being subjected to the same public scrutiny given to corporations and governments. The danger is that they can too easily misrepresent facts and damage the reputations of other institutions without being held accountable.