Two reasons companies need campaigning NGOs, and how they can support them when under attack

Campaigning social and environmental NGOs are increasingly under attack around the world.

From the well-known example of Russia, to Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, campaigners are seen by some as threats to growth, the status quo, overall development, state power and even democracy itself.

As emerging/frontier markets become richer and more confident, business and political voices seeking to protect the status quo (not the band, they are fine) are taking more and more action to restrain NGOs.

Some of their complaints undoubtedly have some merit.

It is true that Western funded NGOs are very active in emerging markets in campaigning.

They do disrupt business operations. They change reputations. They push investors to ask difficult questions. They drive change.

It's also true that they ruffle a lot of feathers whilst doing all this.

And they are not always right.

Pejorative, but often effective

We've seen in the aid industry, particularly in Africa, that dumb systems can be applied to big problems, with predictably inefficient results.

Campaign groups can be controversial not just in their aims, but their practices. Global Witness has been sued for using journalism rules to protect methods. Lines are becoming blurred between citizen journalism, investigative journalism, and campaigning, whilst the law struggles to keep up.

Other campaign groups illegally record meetings. Others break confidences.

They would argue this is small beer compared to the challenges they highlight.

They are mostly right about this. The end does justify the means, they say. They have a point, mostly.

Campaign groups are increasingly highly effective on a global basis. A backlash of sorts was always due as a result.

Greenpeace has catalysed significant change in recent years, particularly the last ten, in areas from soy, to leather to general forest protection, ICT, recycling, and many others.

They focus on big brands because doing so gets results. It might be 'unfair' but if that saves a forest, or a species, or stops communities being poisoned, then it's worth it. That's a fair point.

Rainforest Action Network, although smaller, have helped stop things like mountaintop removal and pushed brands and palm oil businesses to improve.

And several managers in companies have told me how Oxfam's Behind the Brands campaign/ranking has been really helpful in driving changes in FMCG companies.

Behind these front line campaigners often sit more focused and implementation focused groups, such as TFT, Canopy, Care International, Save The Children, Rainforest Alliance and many others, who often get less credit than they deserve.

It's fair to say that overall, this trend of campaign groups (however we define who sits in the categories of "campaigner" versus 'implementer", which can be a false distinction) being more active, and their opponents becoming more vocal, will only grow.

Whilst global and local media continues to struggle to find a business model, and social media and desires for accountability rise, that seems a fair statement.

So if you work for a large company, and you have observed this trend, what should be your view on what, if anything, you can do about it?

This is a really tricky area. Some leading companies have overt positions on supporting civil society development.

(It's worth noting that at least one social science academic I know argues that campaigning NGOs can't be considered part of civil society, because they don't represent, on the whole, the average views of citizens)

That mild digression aside, big companies increasingly need campaigners to do two key things:

A) Help them spot risk, and even opportunity (Unilever and Oxfam in Indonesia as one example amongst many) 

B) Help them, or society/government to level the playing field once practices have been improved amongst the large companies and some of their suppliers

So if you are work for a progressive company, and support the ideas and objectives of campaigning NGOs even if you don't always agree with their methods and messages, how can you help them when they are under attack in emerging markets?

These attacks usually come from industry associations, 'free market' guns for hire, fake NGOs and, of course, opportunistic/nationalistic politicians.

Here's a few thoughts:
  1. Support your international - and local - partners vocally. This can be via statements on your website, posted to social media, but also in Op Eds in newspapers. Make the case for plurality of views, for the benefits of engagement, point out how useful NGOs can be for early warning systems and on the ground feedback and implementation.
  2. Make sure this is reflected by the actions of your locally incorporated business, key partners or joint venture entities. It's more compelling in Delhi if it comes from your local HQ, not London, Paris, New York or anywhere else outside the country.
  3. Push industry or issue-based associations to defend the rights of NGOs to make their views known, similarly to the above. What about a joint letter signed by CEOs, in support of plurality and diversity of views in country X or Y?
  4. Help push campaigners to demonstrate how their actions can and do drive value locally, not just in the broader global sense, but how preventing deforestation, or safeguarding community rights benefits all.
  5. Encourage campaigner self reflection. Accountability is too loaded a term, but reflection is not usually a strong suit of campaign groups. Can they learn from any current controversy, what might they do differently in future, if anything?
  6. Encourage governments and their agencies and institutions to stand up for campaigners. If emerging market politicians are happy to have cash from foreign aid agencies, can they be spoken to privately about the hypocrisy of attacking campaign groups at the same time?
  7. Consider a 'complicity audit' in your overseas businesses. Are you 100% sure that your Indonesian, India, Bangladeshi or Russian subsidiary, partner or key supplier isn't somehow supporting anti-campaigner actions with political donations, dodgy grants or industry group support? 
I appreciate the above suggestions are not right for everyone, that some good ideas are missing (no doubt!) and that doing any of the above is often beyond the remit and comfort levels of many sustainability and corporate responsibility functions.

But attempts to silence dissenting voices are increasing, and they are dangerous for company sustainability progress as they are for NGOs, in different ways (see A and B above).

So if your company can take public position on climate change or water resources, why not a public position on the rights of campaigners to make their views known in emerging markets?

Not as easy a sell upstairs perhaps, but I would argue just as important in the long term.


We're bringing together some of the most progressively-minded large companies and NGOs on October 28-29, and November 10 in London. On Oct 30-31 we're also hosting this, specifically on emerging market stakeholder engagement
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