Activist NGOs continue to resist the trend towards partnerships with business, preferring direct action to engagement

Spring is nearing. If you’re an activist NGO, that means only one thing: AGM season. The annual general meeting has become a ritual for anti-corporate campaigners. They prepare their banners, advise the press, don an outlandish costume and shout from the pavement.

It has not always been so. When campaign groups first came to light, back in the early 1970s, corporations weren’t the big players in town. It was governments. The activists’ campaign goals mirrored those of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, namely changing the rules. If the oceans were being polluted by toxic waste or if whale populations were under threat from hunting, a new convention was needed. And campaigners made sure legislators knew it.

As the economy liberalised and corporations globalised, the focus of campaign groups changed accordingly. From 1980 onwards, Big Business was increasingly seen as muscling in on the public governance process. They fixed trade rules, lobbied for subsidies, bullied local competitors, abused workers – or so campaigners saw it.

For campaigners, nowhere was this scenario more true than in the developing world – the focus of many of their social and environmental concerns. Foreign corporations maintained that their investments marked an antidote to the long-standing problems of poverty, environmental degradation and unemployment. Activists typically saw it the other way round. Global companies were exacerbating these problems, not resolving them.

This emergence of corporations as a target for activist groups is illustrated in the history of Greenpeace. Arguably the most emblematic campaign group of modern times, it started out in 1971 lobbying the US and then the French governments to stop nuclear testing. Over the next two decades, it contributed to a score of other public policy victories: an international whaling moratorium in 1982, a ban on dumping toxic waste at sea the following year, the Antarctic treaty in 1991, and so on.

The past two decades, in contrast, see the arrival of corporations as competitors for Greenpeace’s activist energies.

Brent Spar

In 1991, Greenpeace persuaded German publishers to use chlorine-free paper. And the ball really got rolling after 1995, when Greenpeace won international fame for opposing Shell’s decision to dump the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. Kimberly-Clark’s forestry policy, McDonald’s procurement of Brazilian soyabeans and Dell and Apple’s use of toxic chemicals are just some of the business-focused campaigns that have followed. 

Where Greenpeace led, others followed. Friends of the Earth, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, War on Want, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International and many more besides have become a thorn in the flesh for global corporations.

Their most successful campaigns over the past two decades have typically been targeted on specific companies. The bad guy, as the narrative runs.

Sometimes this is down to individual events. The long-running campaign against Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy or the one against Exxon for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 are historic cases in point.

More often than not, however, campaigners pick individual brands to make a larger point. So campaigns against Monsanto serve to highlight opposition to genetic engineering or adverts damning Tiffany expose the cause of blood diamonds. It may feel unfair to the company in the spotlight, but, in a media age, that’s just how direct action works.

A new phenomenon in recent years is the emergence of sector-focused campaign groups that essentially operate as industry watchdogs. Examples include the likes of BankTrack, PharmaWatch or MiningWatch, which vigilantly monitor their eponymous sectors. A select number of companies now enjoy their own dedicated observers too, such as McDonald’s McSpotlight, Coca-Cola Killer Coke and Barrick Gold Protest Barrick.

Lines drawn

What distinguishes activist groups from other NGOs? Most obvious is their level of antagonism. Activist groups have a “them and us” mindset. Meanwhile, under the banner of constructive engagement, many NGOs have entered alliances with business partners over the past decade and more. WWF, EarthWatch and Forum for the Future are emblematic examples. Even anti-poverty group Oxfam now boasts some corporate alliances. 

“Twenty years ago, [the relationship between NGOs and business] was almost exclusively combative. Now there is a more diverse range of relationships,” says David Bent, Forum for the Future’s head of business strategies. Phrases such as “help businesses”, “work with others” and “share what we learn” litter Forum’s literature, pointing to this more collaborative approach.

But other activist groups aren’t having any of it. Patti Lynn, campaigns director at US-based anti-business group Corporate Accountability International, gives several reasons for being “extremely dubious” of NGO-business alliances.

First and foremost, a partnership approach is often illogical. Organisations such as Lynn’s exist to stop tobacco, for example. Partnering with a major tobacco company would “do more to denigrate [our] cause than advance it”, she argues.

Even when the conflict of interest is less extreme, the possibility of co-option through partnerships is perceived as almost inevitable. “Transnational corporations have long purchased the favour of their opposition, while promising one thing and delivering another,” Lynn notes. And finally, there is the facade of external legitimacy that such partnerships can engender. Companies very often use NGO alliances to “undermine necessary policies”, she maintains. In short, no good can come of it.

Activist groups, in a sense, are not so dissimilar from their corporate foes in many ways. Both have “customers”, for instance. Even though the profile of consumers and donors may be different, each needs to feel its needs are being met. Likewise, corporations and activist groups both depend heavily on their brand image to get their messages out. For activist NGOs, that means presenting themselves as virulently independent. Greenpeace and its peers therefore make much of being supporter-financed.

Complex relationships

Away from the media gaze, activist groups are not as anti-dialogue as their public image supposes. There is a realist impulse among most that acknowledges the limitations of throwing bricks.

Greenpeace’s recent dealings with McDonald’s is illustrative. Partly as a consequence of activist pressure, the global restaurant chain agreed to sign up to a business alliance to promote environmentally friendly refrigeration. In early 2013, Greenpeace got wind that McDonald’s planned to pull out of the Refrigerants, Naturally! initiative. The activist group had an option: launch a fresh campaign or get on the phone. Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace International, opted for the latter. He called the chief executive of fellow alliance signatory Coca-Cola, who called the chief executive of McDonald’s. Similar discreet negotiations are going on all the time.

Don’t expect activists to be sitting side by side with corporate bosses any time soon. But do expect more opportunities for private dialogue. Indeed, Greenpeace’s Naidoo is on record as advocating sustained relationships with business – just as long as all parties are in no doubt about the “disagreements, differences and contradictions” that will follow.

Activist  NGO  NGO campaigning  Oliver Balch  partnerships  stakeholder engagement 

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