Book Review: Business-Civil Society Partnerships Essential for Greater Social Change


By Suresh Kr Pramar

Evolving Partnerships: A Guide to Working with Business for Greater Social Change: by Jem Bendell; 2010 Geenleaf Publishing Limited, UK; 150 Pages
Evolving Partnerships: A Guide to Working with Business for Greater Social Change: by Jem Bendell; 2010 Geenleaf Publishing Limited, UK; 150 Pages

The desire to “give back to society” is growing among fledging and established industrial houses/Corporations in India. However, most Indian companies, who wish to be more responsible, lack the knowledge, trained manpower or the dedication to carry out community development programmes.

Non Government Organisations (NGOs) on the other hand have acquired the expertise to become instrumental in development work but lack the required means and financial resources to carry out their projects efficiently in a sustainable manner.

Business and NGOs have become major actors in the promotion of social and economic development largely because of a decline in the role of the nation-state in the context of an increasingly “globalized” international economy. Transnational corporations (TNCs) or
multinational corporations (MNCs) and major domestic industries have gained increasing economic and political power of the last decades.

It has shifted power from governmental institutions to the private sector. In the developed industrial nations, state and national governments, are often seen doing the bidding of their major corporations, while in the less developed world, MNCs  are often seen as having more economic power than governments.

A recent study has revealed that of the 150 economies of the world 91 were corporations not countries. Walmart the retail giant was placed 21th on the list being bigger than Sweden or Saudi Arabia. Closer home companies like Reliance and  Tata were larger than three fourths of the number of states in the country.

Research has shown at TNCs are responsible for about 25 percent of the Earth’s gross national products, putting unprecedented resources at their disposal. Because of their ability to have far reaching activities, there is an increasing sense that business has a responsibility in promoting inclusive economic development.

The welfare state has been replaced by the business welfare. Cutbacks in international development aid have put pressure on the nonprofit sector operating in India to find alternative funding. NGOs have turned to the private sector for funding, but they do not want to be in a position of dependency vis a vis corporations.

Partnerships are a way of engaging the private sector in projects in which it has an interest, rather than simply receiving funding from a corporation that could withdraw its support at any time. The push for more responsible business practices has caused some corporations to seek out NGOs as partners to help them implement solutions to development problems.

Bringing together the respective competencies and resources for greater good governments, business and civil society can help to overcome the many of the present day development challenges.

Partnerships between business and NGOs is a solution to pressing present-day problems. Traditionally the two sectors have been conflicting rather than cooperating with one and other. NGOs and business are often considered to be on “opposite ends of the continuum of concern on issues of poverty and development.

Companies view NGOs as being too idealistic and not having enough discipline to function in the market. This has led to stereotyping on both sides translating into mutual suspicion and resistance to change.

NGOs see themselves as the losing party in attempts at collaboration because they have weaker bargaining power. They therefore believe that most of the benefits of partnerships are enjoyed by corporations While business is perceived as caring only about the financial bottom
line, the non-profit sector is typically seen as being concerned with poverty reduction, and more social or environmental goals. This has led to stereotyping on both sides translating into mutual suspicion and resistance to change. Civil society organization fear that partnership with Business would threaten their integrity and independence.

Suresh Kr Pramar, Executive Director, Centre for Training & Research in Responsible Business
Suresh Kr Pramar, Executive Director, Centre for Training & Research in Responsible Business

Business fear that the time and money devoted on the partnership will divert their attention from producing good and services that would benefit their owners and employees.

NGOs view companies as unreliable, dominated by economic self-interest, while they in turn see NGOs as marginal ‘do-gooders’ who cannot manage their finances According to The Trust Barometer in 2011 Trust in Business had increased over 2010 to 56 percent but was still less than the 61 percent scored by civil society organizations.

Trust in government has also increased from 47 percent to 52 percent and trust in the media was 49 percent up from 45 percent.

A Survey had indicated that most people seem to question credibility of an NGO when the NGO has partnerships with a company.

In a report international business associations have pointed out that the best way for business to regain public trust was by associating with the civil society organizations in partnership to undertake programmes for the welfare of society.

In his excellent and useful Guide “Evolving Partnerships: A Guide to Working with Business  for Greater Social Change” Jem Bendell says,“ the appetite for partnership is strong with 90 percent of corporate  executive surveyed by the World Economic Forum indicating that future partnerships between business, government and civil society would play either a major role or some role in addressing key development challenges.”

Highlighting the advantages of cross sector partnerships the author has pointed out “the engagement with professionals working in other sectors enables people to expand their view on a particular challeng and understand the relationships and interests that shape the situation.

For partnering to be a successful strategy for social change, it must evolve by addressing drawbacks and limitations.” According to Bedell partnering in itself is neither good or bad. The usefulness of the partnership requires continual attention by the involved practitioners to the public goals, wide systems and personal intentions at play.

“ If practitioners do not recognize, or choose to ignore, the limits of partnering, this  not only restricts learning but also reduces the attention the give to goals, systems and intentions.” According to Eva Halper, “The most successful and productive partnerships are those that do not resist change by trying to contain the partnership in a fixed format but rather accept, manage and even thrive on change as a key element in their partnering approach.”

Bendell has highlighted three stages of partnering: First generation partnership which involves financial contributions from business with some sharing of benefits but with little risk to the business or commitment beyond the financial donation.

Second generation  partnership in which partners commit to change their internal operations in line with the objectives of the public interest organization. Financial contributions are involved but the main focus is on the operations of corporate partners.

In the Third Generation partnerships partners seek to change their external operating  contexts in order for them to be better supported to achieve internal changes for public goal and to encourage non partners to do the same.

Evolving Change is a much needed Guide to help business and civil society to work their way to successful partnerships. It hand holds the practitioners and takes them through the various stages of creating meaningful partnership to bring about greater social change.

This is a very useful Guide for business houses in India, and more particularly public sector units who need to secure NGO cooperation to implement their CSR agenda.

Seeking partnerships is only part of the issue more important is setting them up and making them effective and functional. Jem Benell with his vast experience in the area has put together an excellent book which could serve as a bible for those involved in creating
workable solutions through business/civil society cooperation.

This is a must read publication Evolving Partnerships: A Guide to Working with Business for Greater Social Change: by Jem Bendell; 2010 Geenleaf Publishing Limited, UK; 150 Pages

( Suresh Kr Pramar, Executive Director, Centre for Training & Research
in Responsible Business, Noida   09213133042)

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