Engaging with companies: pragmatic idealism

Times are changing rapidly. To stay relevant, organisations need to keep up and adjust the way they operate. Sometimes this means stepping outside of institutional comfort zones and taking a leap into the unknown. A case in point is the way NGOs like Oxfam deal with the private sector. This topic has stimulated much soul-searching and continued internal and external debates. These processes of reflection and exchange are invaluable, because the questions we are dealing with are vital. We cannot afford to approach them lightly. Oxfam works with companies in complex ways, testing and trying ways of engagement to have a greater positive impact.

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    We know that the private sector can play a key role in improving the lives of people living in poverty around the world. Not only can their innovations bring radical solutions to intractable problems, but corporations’ sheer size means that their investment choices will determine whether economies are inclusive, environmentally sustainable and beneficial to people living in poverty. Too often we see businesses pursuing short-term interests, prioritising shareholders’ financial returns over their own workers and the communities they impact, and lobbying against laws that would address the egregious abuses committed by some companies.

    The gap between what is possible and what has been achieved so far is huge. We need a totally different approach to build the sustainable, human economy that the world so urgently needs. ‘Contributions’ by business are expected to underpin the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but based on performance to date, we have cause for concern. On the flipside, a range of opportunities to engage businesses in new efforts to address poverty are being created as progressives in the private sector realise that social and environmental breakdown is bad for business too. Combined with renewed expectations on business, and after years of successful campaigns exposing corporate abuse, we see new initiatives emerging in the business world.

    For over ten years now, Oxfam has worked with companies in complex ways, testing and trying ways of engagement with corporations to move them to greater positive impact. We are known for our hard-hitting campaigns, for example, the Behind the Brands campaign on food and beverage companies and the more recent Behind the Price campaign on supermarkets. The enormous power of pressure from the increasingly aware public, thanks partly to these campaigns, has led to the adoption of new policies by major companies, such as Coca Cola on landgrabs, General Mills on carbon emissions and Mars on empowering women in their supply chains. These companies are now among the pioneers seeking to put in practice the policies they have committed to. Oxfam remains in dialogue and sometimes partnership with them as they do this.

    On other occasions, we collaborate with the frontrunners who want to fix a problem, but cannot move unilaterally because the problem is deeply systemic and sector wide. Implementing solutions alone may mean becoming an uncompetitive business. However, collaborative efforts can bring tangible results. For example, Oxfam has worked with the ‘B-Team’. This is a group of companies that have realised that corporations’ current tax behaviour is causing major problems in the fabric of society. They are building a set of tax responsibility principles for companies to adopt. Initiatives like this create space for governments to bring in better legislation.

    We also aim to channel the creativity, resources and influence of the private sector to build better solutions. In collaboration with VISA, for example, Oxfam in the Philippines worked to set up a simple and efficient platform involving local financial institutions and communities to organise speedy money transfers during disasters and emergencies. With Unilever we are testing another way of working: a pooled fund that supports Unilever supply chain partners to increase their social impact. Oxfam is helping the company and its partners build and select quality control programmes that empower women in the supply chain and improve conditions for workers.

    We believe that a mature approach of engaging with the private sector is one that considers that companies are not a homogenous group, and are not static entities either. We aim to develop a strategic approach that changes over time, using various stakeholders around companies, including investors, shareholders, workers and the communities impacted by the company. We want to steer these companies into a different, more socially and environmentally sustainable direction. That means hitting them hard when needed, but also collaborating where real solutions can be found.

    Businesses are clearly evolving, and positive forces for change may be emerging. We see it in the US businesses that spoke out against the US governments travel bans; and in diamond companies such as Tiffany & Co that supported the release of a journalist arrested by the Angolan government. We see it in companies dedicating the windfall gains following the US government tax cut to climate action, and in the growth of companies that are increasingly concerned about the impact of inequality on society and the planet.

    As Oxfam, we haven’t quite found the ultimate recipe to make a company move on our concerns, and we regularly re-examine our multifaceted approach. Yet, we have no doubt that we do need to develop a diverse set of tailored and agile strategies towards the corporate sector if we want to make progress towards the SDGs.

    About the author
    Ms Lies Craeynest is the Head of Private Sector Engagement, Oxfam International.
    Twitter: @liescraeynest

    Read the full magazine issue

    Civil society & business: pulling in the same direction? Volume 8, Issue 1. Winter 2018/2019
    28 February 2019
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