The Necessity of Corporate/NGO Partnerships

While corporations have historically committed human rights and environmental conservation violations, it is undisputed that they have taken several steps in recent years to reduce their negative impact on the world. Perhaps the most important fundamental change in the framework of corporate responsibility is the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The principles lay out three “pillars”: (1)the state’s duty to protect human rights, (2)the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and (3)the need for available remedies for victims of corporate abuses. [1] But can companies live up to these standards? NGO(Non-government Organizations)/Corporate partnerships may be the answer, but they are in dire straits.

   The Guiding Principles were released to open support by the business community, with companies like Coca-Cola calling them flexible and a great foundation for corporate responsibility.[2] However, while companies have endorsed them for the most part, they remain responsibilities and not obligations, which, when combined with the fact that there is no overall accountability mechanism to enforce these principles, leaves corporations free to go back on their word.[3] Despite Coca-Cola’s support of the principles, it has violated human rights in India several times with its Kerala plant, by over-extracting water, indiscriminately discharging waste water in the surrounding area and distributing toxic waste as fertilizer to the surrounding area.[4] Additionally, in the past, Coca-Cola has distributed soda with levels of pesticide so high that they could cause cancer and damage to the nervous and immune systems, among other effects.[5]

                If the U.N. and state governments cannot keep corporations in line, then who can? The state has a compelling interest in protecting human rights. However, it cannot regulate its resident corporations’ activities in other nations effectively. It is here that NGOs shine. Many organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Federation and Human Rights Watch keep an eye on corporate activities, intervening in human rights issues when possible. For instance, Human Rights Watch has publicized the abuse of workers from unpaid labor to physical violence in the mines of Eritrea by contractors contracted by a Canadian firm called Nevsun.[6]  Nevsun knew of these issues after they occurred, but continued to use the same contractors to continue operating in the area. It was only through the work of NGOs that these violations were publicized.[7]

                NGO and corporate partnerships are not new.  While they seemed like a strange and exotic concept at first, they have become an important part of corporate framework when it comes to dealing with society. Businesses seek to fulfill their duty to society as a whole by working with NGOs and following the law, while NGOs try to fulfill their mission goal of “doing the right thing”. [8] This sort of partnership allows both entities to influence each other and make their viewpoints known. In particular, it lends corporations an air of legitimacy and promotes goodwill while allowing NGOs to directly influence corporations’ actions and receive funding from them.

                In the previous years, corporations and NGOs were mostly optimistic about their partnerships, claiming that even though there was still a learning curve, these partnerships allowed NGOs to make impacts on a wider scale.[9] 93% of corporate partners and 79% of NGO partners stated that they thought that the partnerships helped businesses understand social and economic issues, while 46% of corporate partners and 40% of NGO partners believe that they have already changed business practices for the better. [10] However, in this past year, corporate and NGO confidence in partnerships has been shaken.  The failure of the carbon trading market in Europe left NGOs under attack for supporting a market mechanism. [11] The collapse of a textile building in Bangladesh shook NGO confidence in the deadly working conditions of the supply chains of clothing-makers that they had spent so much effort in trying to improve.[12]

                The relationship between partners still has many kinks that need to be straightened out, like communication issues and less than noble motives on the parts of both the NGO and the corporation. Many times the corporation simply seeks a partnership to look good than actually benefit society. NGOs are also not without fault-NGOs often see their partners as simply a cash bank.  These types of viewpoints lead to conflict and inefficiency in meeting both the corporation’s and the NGO’s goals.

However, despite many partnerships being less than optimal, there are still more that work to great effect, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Save the Children working together to not only create an antibiotic to save newborns, but also to create a type of powdered antibiotic to fight pneumonia.[13] Without these sorts of partnerships, corporations would not have the incentive or the focus to help suffering sections of the world’s populations, both abroad and at home.  The fact that many partnerships tend to have no real effect does not lessen the impact of those that do.  Partners can work together to reduce communication problems and address each others’ issues using lessons learned by past failed partnerships, like speaking in the company’s interest, maintaining networks and actively engaging members of both entities.[14]

While the Guiding Principles may have set a standard for corporate responsibility when it comes to human rights, it requires a more close to the ground watchdog in order to fulfill that standard. Corporate/NGO partnerships allow businesses to fulfill their duty to society while garnering goodwill and NGOs to further their agenda and receive sponsorship.  Despite setbacks, Corporate/NGO partnerships may become the most impactful mechanism in changing business behaviors.




[12] Id.