Earlier this week I spent an intense two days discussing Oxfam’s private sector strategy with our big cheeses, joined by a variety of real live capitalists, whose views ranged all the way from ‘Oxfam is irrelevant’ to people who closely resemble NGOs in suits. Far too much to process into anything coherent, but here are some initial random impressions.
Is it ‘us and them’ or ‘we’? The underlying views of Oxfam staff are scattered along a spectrum from anti-capitalist watchdog to anti-poverty business partner. Where you sit depends partly on your job (campaigners tend to be more anti-, fundraisers more pro-), partly on your personal story and psychology. As an organization, we aim to play both roles – insider and outsider, but the centrifugal forces driving them apart are strong. It takes a certain kind of person to sit down and bond with a captain of industry one day, and then slag them off to the media the next. We have some of them, but for the rest, there is a tendency to opt for one or other camp, leading to some difficult exchanges.
What is the private sector anyway? We don’t have a ‘state strategy’ or a ‘civil society strategy’ so why have one on the private sector? I came to the conclusion that we were actually discussing something much more specific – a ‘large company engagement strategy’. It didn’t include structural discussions about how markets contribute to development (industrial policy and upgrading, taxation and social contract etc) or much on those parts of the private sector we probably know best – women in the informal sector, small farmers (except when they sell to big companies). It’s not easy to keep those on the agenda (I raised corporate taxation with a couple of the business reps and got a pretty frosty reception), so you need to make sure you consider them separately if they drop off your ‘private sector strategy’.
Even within this narrower definition, there are subcategories. We identified four:
· Corporate giving: orphanages and stuff – by far the most widespread. My favourite example of in-kind giving was persuading a mobile phone operator in Cambodia to equip women community leaders with mobile phones so they could stay in touch with each other (the few women leaders feel very isolated). The neat touch was making sure the phones were pink, so the men wouldn’t ‘borrow’ them.
· Value chain restructuring: bumping up the role of smallholders in supply chains, or improving labour rights
· Pro poor products and services – bottom of the pyramid business
· Social enterprises – the new boom of hybrid not-just-for-profit businesses
Why do companies talk to us? I think this is what is meant by the ubiquitous fuzzword ‘value proposition’. What’s in it for them? Setting our own bipolar combination of hubris and insecurity to one side, the reasons the business folk actually gave were quite useful and helpful to keep in mind next time we are pitching to a ‘corporate’, whether in insider or outsider mode. Firms talk to Oxfam/other large NGOs because:
· We are both ‘deeply valued’ and ‘feared’ (we are also apparently, sometimes ‘hated’ but I doubt that leads to much engagement)
· The level of public trust in an NGO is often higher than in a business, and so we can get people who would not normally talk to each other (hostility or different worlds) into a room and keep them there until they make a deal. This brokering, convening role feels like the way we will go in the future.
· We are useful partners in talking to third parties, like governments or funders, when they would not accept talking to business alone.
· We understand wider issues beyond the remit of business (what one exec referred to as ‘the poverty thing’)
If businesses have a higher opinion of NGOs than we sometimes have of ourselves, that might explain why, according to one business rep, we ‘don’t ask for enough’ – we should make bigger and more frequent demands of business. However, think hard about what you are going to ask for. If you say ‘we want you to do X’ and the reply is ‘OK, but we want you to help us do it’, will you be able to follow through?
Finally, getting symbolic action to influence other constituencies such as government or public opinion (e.g. persuading Nike to pull out of the US Chamber of Commerce over its stance on climate change) is likely to be easier than stuff that directly hits the bottom line.
Lots of other stuff, but that’s (more than) enough for one post.