In the developing economies of Latin America, Africa, India and China, local NGOs operate differently from their big international cousins, and will engage with companies for mutual benefit

Region by region, in emerging economies around the world, local and international NGOs interact with their corporate counterparts in many and distinct ways.

What can companies do to find the best way to develop relationships on the one hand, and keep themselves out of the firing line on the other?

Taking advice from subsidiaries and suppliers is an option, but they may not be too interested in environmental or human rights issues. And environmental impact assessments tend to provide technical solutions and don’t necessarily take into account local sensitivities.

Consultants are helpful in launching a sustainability strategy, but ultimately direct contact proves more valuable – if companies truly wish to develop business in new markets that is sustainable and successful.

“The biggest challenge – even for companies that want to do the right thing – is in getting the right local partners,” says Pinaki Roy, a community development consultant in India who helped guide the country’s Global Reporting Initiative secretariat in the early 2000s.

The way to find those partners it is to assemble an address book of low-key respectable organisations that are not necessarily tied to overseas funding. These can often be found through international NGOs but also through educational institutions and legal associations.

Domestic offerings, then, may range from thinktanks to advocacy groups, smallholder farmer organisations and the one-off community representative who pops up on a project basis. Supply chain auditors such as Rainforest Alliance aggregate local NGO groups in their country programmes, while development NGOs such as Oxfam are respected for having deep and longstanding relations with local communities around the world.

Though conditions vary greatly according to country and region, local stakeholder engagement can be effective. It takes effort and perseverance, and it’s process-based.

Latin America – sophisticated civil society

International conservation groups and an increasingly sophisticated network of local organisations in Latin America operate in an array of sectors as diverse as agriculture, fishing, carbon and water. The Rainforest Alliance, for one, aims to transform practices at the farm level. It has long been an active player in Latin America, where it has developed social and environmental standards for coffee, cocoa and bananas.

Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance, says her organisation’s community outreach work tries to discover and adjudicate land tenure conflicts, and not just act as a rubber stamp authorising local projects in exchange for community consent.

“We pull together community complaints and concerns and we look at it in terms of substantiating whether [they amount to] one person’s bone to pick versus backed-up group consensus,” Whelan says. “We rely on community feedback, we talk to local NGOs and say ‘this is what we heard’ and ‘how do you respond to that?’” If problems are indeed serious enough, action will be taken – including withholding certification of projects when appropriate.

Another programme, the water funds concept pioneered by The Nature Conservancy, is not so much a certification scheme as a stakeholder forum that brings in local utilities, farmer organisations and food and drink companies to work together on project-based initiatives aimed at watershed conservation. More than 15 funds are now established in the Andes and parts of Central America and Brazil.

Land grabs

A major concern in Latin America has been multinational companies making land grabs, something publicised by Oxfam. It says poor people continue to be evicted, often violently, without consultation or compensation.

But what turns legitimate acquisition into a land grab? Disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts are important issues, but increasingly the key indicator is lack of free, prior and informed consent – under which affected communities are informed about and are able to give or refuse consent to a project.

“It is a risk management issue but also a real legal obligation,” says Kevin Koenig, Ecuadorian representative for Amazon Watch, a US-based non-profit group that works with indigenous and environmental organisations. In Ecuador and Peru, oil giants Talisman, Occidental Petroleum and Conoco Phillips have all pulled out of projects after facing adamant community opposition.

“It’s a process of engagement that takes time,” says Koenig. “It isn’t just a PowerPoint presentation from a company that says this is what we are going to do.”

Governments – not NGOs – are supposed to lead the consultation process, but this can break down where there is longstanding local conflict. The Brazilian government, for one, has been accused of not considering indigenous rights when it comes to oil and gas development.

Resource extraction often leaves NGOs in a difficult position: they are neither the community representative, nor the decision-maker, but are aligned with community agendas.

And a company seeking to engage with local communities can gain ground by entering dialogue early in any project, says Ignacio Gavilan, a sustainability expert who has worked for large companies throughout Latin America.

“In your stakeholder engagement and analysis you have to determine who the NGOs are and how to appropriately engage with them,” Gavilan counsels.

“Just say the word ‘mining’ in Peru and there will be reactions,” he continues. “But if you elaborate around jobs, irrigation, water quality, food safety – acknowledging potential risks and proactively seeking agreements – people may think differently. It’s still a mine with its impacts but stakeholders need to see that from the beginning – and then if they still want to oppose, at least they are informed about what their opposition is about.”

India – civil society writ large

In India, where there’s no shortage of NGO representation – some estimate NGOs number more than 3m – part of the problem lies in navigating a civil society that is highly politicised and fractured.

And the government gives little deference to matters such as free, prior and informed consent, and this puts companies in a quandary, says Daniel Taghioff, an India-based consultant specialising in land rights conflicts.

“Essentially a company’s core interest in making a profit is very aligned with state priorities,” says Taghioff, “but their corporate responsibility priorities are going to pull them towards people who are very much in a position of resistance to the state.”

In India there is often great inequality of wealth between rural and urban areas, which results in deep mistrust between local communities and central administrations, says Pinaki Roy. “Even if you go for Indian entities, there is no guarantee that the organisation which is headquartered nationally in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore will have the ability to get a wholehearted engagement from the communities that are going to be affected.”

Local partners must be chosen with great care. Often an NGO that is funded at the local level will be owned by politically powerful people based outside that local community, and NGOs can themselves become untrusted brands. “The challenge,” Roy says, “is that many communities feel they should be talking to the government, not to the companies.”

Nevertheless, finding Indian NGOs that will engage is not an insurmountable task. One place to start is with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a human rights body with reputable contacts throughout India’s 28 states and seven union territories. Kalpraviksh is another national non-profit group focused on social and environmental issues. International groups such as Action Aid and Oxfam have longstanding operations in the country and are also a deep source of local knowledge.

“There are no easy answers,” says Roy. “Ours is a multilayered society with regional castes and gender dynamics that confound even the most earnest companies.”

Activist diversity in Africa

African countries often defy easy generalisation. Each has its own history and civil society structure alongside a plethora of western aid agencies, many of which contract out their projects to NGOs that end up working in a service delivery capacity.

Oxfam, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are examples of the groups now fulfilling these roles. Farmer advocacy groups and thinktanks are in abundance, as are organisations focused on healthcare issues.

African NGOs offer capacity and tremendous focus at the community level, but often don’t have the long-term monitoring and evaluation systems in place. “That can be challenging to corporates,” says Matt Brown, the Africa conservation director for TNC.

Since 2006 TNC has worked in Africa mainly by focusing its attention on grasslands protection in the central and eastern portions of the continent. In northern Tanzania it has secured wildlife corridors and traditional land uses for pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, while actively working as a convener of external and local NGO groups on matters of healthcare delivery in and around Lake Tanganyika, a biodiversity hotspot located in the country’s western region.

Though it currently has eight projects in various stages of development, TNC has yet to enter into any large corporate partnerships. Smart mining in collaboration with the government is one possible route forwards, as is work to secure land rights in transport corridors now coming through the region.

Large-scale agriculture presents its own set of problems. The goal here, says Brown, is to intensify production utilising the best soils and inputs in order to minimise slash-and-burn farming.

But those ambitions for growth could stir opposition from groups such as the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, which has called on the Tanzanian government to review its investment policy to limit the amount of land given to foreign investors.

“It is really a David-Goliath struggle where you have very poor communities and farmers who have often been neglected by governments who aren’t interested in investments to support farmers,” says Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute. “So when businesses come proposing all good things in terms of jobs and infrastructure, many communities may be tempted to say, ‘it sounds good to us’.

“We really need them to be informed about what’s going to happen and we need governments to introduce and ensure policy frameworks that really help people.”

For corporate partnerships to work in Africa, Brown says TNC has to choose its projects carefully. “The goal is to build participatory processes that create trust and on-the-ground results,” he says.

Chinese control

China’s controlled economy is a challenging environment for NGO activity. Domestic programmes in China are closely monitored, but since 2011 the government has allowed limited registration of NGOs. Currently there are fewer than 700 registered local NGOs in China, according to the China Development Brief’s reporting on the civil society sector.

These groups don’t receive money from foreign donors. They’re tightly controlled but nevertheless are indicative of a growing liberalisation helped to a large extent by a communications explosion and the increased use of social media in China.

Activist, campaigning organisations don’t exist in the traditional sense, but if citizens present the facts to the right people, pressure can be brought to bear, says Li Lin, WWF’s deputy country representative in China.

Lin cites one recent example in Shifang, southwest China, where protests against a multi-million-dollar copper plant led to riots and the temporary cessation of all construction work. Fears about the impact of development on the environment and public health are engaging a growing sector of the population, particularly the young.

From a company perspective, “the community can come to you from different angles”, says Lin. “Identify the community leaders, and talk to them to see what their concerns are,” he counsels.

International NGOs were themselves officially registered for the first time in 2007. Groups active in China include faith-based organisations, humanitarian and development organisations, private foundations, policy research thinktanks and campaigning organisations such as the International Rivers Network.

And as China opens up to NGOs, the impact of the big international campaigners, currently with a low profile, will be an interesting test of how far the authorities are prepared to allow a more mature civil society to develop.

Activist  Africa  China  Eric Marx  Latin America  NGO  NGO campaigning  stakeholder engagement 

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