Exploring the Potentials of NGO-Corporate Partnerships for Development

A recent article by Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter about new diplomatic initiatives at the U.S. State Department may induce an acute case of policy envy in many Canadian readers. Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as Slaughter describes, U.S. diplomacy is executing a ‘pivot to the people’—an approach consisting of “policies, programmes and institutional reforms designed to support government-to-society and society-to-society diplomacy, alongside traditional government-to-government relations.”

This approach represents a striking rethinking of foreign policy on diverse fronts, including:

  • a move to protect individuals through a new ‘super-office’ of Civilian Security Democracy and Human Rights, joining “agencies that focus on international law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and reconstruction and stabilization with those charged with advancing democracy, human rights and humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants”;
  • the State Department’s use of social media and telecommunications to promote interactions between individuals around the world and authorities in their own countries or the U.S.; and
  • the State Department’s development of programs aimed specifically at social segments such women, youth, entrepreneurs, Muslims and diaspora communities.

Such developments are likely to be applauded by Canadians who are less than impressed with the Conservative government’s redirection of Canada’s foreign policy toward tough-talking Manicheanism and a military-might-above-all take on global problems. Whether casting a wistful look back at the Axworthian human security agenda or looking at today’s and tomorrow’s realities of hyperlinked globalization, observers on the centre-left side of the political spectrum can only wonder when Canada will match these progressive initiatives.

However, one dimension of the State Department’s ‘pivot to the people’ agenda is less likely to be admired by Canadians on the centre-left of the political spectrum: namely, an extensive participation of the private sector in funding and conducting programs. As Slaughter notes, there are more than 30 mentions of ‘public-private partnerships’ in the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy. Correspondingly, the Global Partnership Initiative created under Secretary of State Clinton has U.S. businesses joining forces with government, universities and non-profits in coalitions to support State Department programming abroad.

If reactions within Canada to recent stories about CIDA support for programming partnerships between Canadian mining companies and international development NGOs are any indication, a sizable chunk of Canadian opinion is intensely suspicious of such a move. Recent public discussion of CIDA’s decision—among other NGOs, MPs and academics, as well as on-line commenters—has painted it as little more than a political maneuver by the Conservative government to align Canada’s foreign policy with mining sector interests. It’s no secret that political partisanship can blind people to the merits of sensible policy ideas floated by ‘the other side’. Given that fact, it’s worth noting the U.S. State Department’s embrace of public-private partnerships in order to remind Canadian progressives that the notion is not merely a nefarious spawn of Conservative ideology. In fact, it’s conceptually bound up with a host of other initiatives showing an unprecedented degree of diplomatic sensitivity to the perspectives of individuals and identity groups. That’s something that ought to make cynical Canadians think twice about categorical opposition to such partnerships.

To endorse exploration of the potentials of public-private partnerships in development is not, of course, to give an unconditional blessing to anything that may come from it. Advocates in the U.S. and Canada alike highlight the need for caution and precision: much can go wrong unless the motivations of all parties are focused foremost on producing genuine gains in poverty alleviation and economic empowerment, and unless each sector is contributing its distinctive strengths in ways best suited to individual situations. So there are risks; but the ample record of international development failures in past decades shows that ‘non-traditional’ aid approaches have no monopoly on potentials for disappointment.

Here’s a suggestion for where advocates of private-public sector partnerships in international affairs might start in convincing naysayers to entertain the possibility of fruitful outcomes: with the always-slippery issue of motivations. To judge by the dominant tenor of Canadian criticisms, opposition to the CIDA-funded partnerships reflects a certainty that corporations could not possibly have a sincere interest in helping alleviate poverty in the developing countries in which they operate. Notwithstanding virtuous posturing about commitments to corporate social responsibility (CSR), critics charge, corporations involved in international aid partnerships are simply seeking a license to exploit nature and people alike as they strip resources from developing countries.

If one is looking at the matter through the dualistic lens of an either/or view of motivation—either corporations are out to maximize profit at any cost or else are selflessly devoted to improving the lot of the poor—then wholly cynical corporate motives will inevitably be diagnosed. But it’s time for a more nuanced view of motivations, reflecting some realities of globalization, to supplant that conceptually impoverished view. Last year, the business-services firm Accenture—which operates a not-for-profit division that consults for international development organizations—published an excellent report on the potentials of development partnerships in a ‘converging world’. In it, they point out that in today’s world of multiply-intersecting risks and instant communications, corporations can have a genuine commercial interest in improving social, economic and environmental well-being in developing countries. In myriad ways, it’s possible for business opportunity to align corporate interests with those of aid agencies and other development partners.

So it’s not that corporate interests are an either/or matter of altruism vs. greed; it’s that they can—not necessarily, but in particular cases—converge with what NGOs and governments identify as pressing development needs. And where that happens, the responsible thing for governments and NGOs to do is to explore possibilities for making that convergence of interests pay off in better development outcomes.

Granted, the notion of converging interests is rather more subtle than the average sound bite (or online reader comment) is prone to capture. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a point worth trying to spread at every level and in every way possible, given the potential benefits at stake.

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