Should human rights funds just say no to corporate alliances?


John Harvey


Without a doubt, the highpoint of the IHRFG conference 14-15 July in New York City was a formal live debate – unfortunately a rare form of discourse at philanthropy conferences. The resolution under discussion: ‘human rights advocates should not ally with large corporations’. Now, the framing of the question presented a semantic challenge: just what is meant by ‘ally’? It appeared people arguing ‘no’ to alliances assumed the resolution referred only to the most intensive forms of cooperation. Those arguing ‘yes’ to alliances seem to have assumed that ‘to ally’ included fairly light-touch cooperation. This framing challenge aside, the conversation was exceptionally rich, with all debaters playing their parts wonderfully well and providing the audience rich food for thought.

Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, took the stand first, arguing quite passionately that human rights organizations should not ally with corporations. For Ellen, the job of human rights organizations is to work with and for people whose rights are at risk or have been violated, not to be a PR machine for corporations seeking to burnish their social record. Alliances should be with communities, not corporations. Ellen advanced four main arguments:

  • Alliances only serve to whitewash corporate malfeasance and coopt NGOs.
  • Productive alliances require some balance of power, an impossibility given the historically unprecedented power of corporations today against the comparatively weak human rights community.
  • Human rights organizations risk becoming a substitute for authentic community dialogue and engagement, with communities ultimately paying the price.
  • There is no accountability for staff of human rights organizations that engage in failed alliances.

Chris Jochnick, director of the private sector department at Oxfam America, came next to the stand, making the case for alliances. Chris agreed with Ellen that corporations are vastly more powerful and influential – in fact they dominate – and he argued that it is exactly for this reason that we have to engage them as allies. Chris argued that corporations at times want to be champions of the same concerns as the human rights communities; when they do, we really need to tap this potential leverage. Chris also noted that we need to know our enemies, and allying with them is a great way to do so. Chris stressed that we need to be looking at systemic solutions and that we don’t get this just from throwing stones from the outside. When companies come around to be allies with the human rights community, we need to take advantage of that, being as opportunistic as possible.

Audrey Gaughran, director of global issues and research for Amnesty International, spoke next, returning the debate to the problems with corporate alliances. For Audrey, there is an important structural problem in these alliances – corporations and human rights organizations have fundamentally different definitions of success: companies engage not to deal with the issues, but to deal with and neutralize criticism, often to move into new markets unimpeded. Engaging corporations in alliances gives them cover to do so. She noted that staff time spent on alliances is time not spent in the field investigating human rights abuses. Such time is far better spent holding companies to account, putting pressure on regulators to regulate all companies and working with communities to claim and defend their own rights. Audrey urged the audience to follow the money: companies spend vastly more on lobbyists than on CSR or stakeholder engagement. Their priorities are clear, and we are delusional to think otherwise.

Arvind Ganesan, director, business and human rights at Human Rights Watch, spoke last, returning to the pro-alliances case. Arvind agreed that it’s best to have a good regulator that enforces laws, but, he asked: what do you do when there are no laws or regulations yet in place, and the actors involved – including corporations and government officials – are so powerful they can undermine the creation of new protective laws and regulations?

Arvind argued that civil society has to approach these circumstances differently. First, civil society must expose the injustice. Then, in the absence of standards, civil society has an obligation to look for allies wherever they can find them – including the very corporations who are committing the injustices – to develop new standards. Arvind gave two examples of civil society’s allying with corporations to get them to voluntarily change their behaviours: in the US, tobacco companies ending child labour practices, and globally, tech companies like Google loosening their censorship standards.

A rich conversation, first between and among the panellists and then with the audience, followed these consistently interesting remarks. The debate included a polling of conference participants, before and after the debate. Technical difficulties prevented a completely accurate sampling, and the wording of the debate’s proposition also caused some confusion, but overall I’d say that the no-to-alliances faction among participants outnumbered the other side.

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional.

Tagged in: IHRFG

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