Inspired by her time as a Student Fellow at TAI, Zoya Sattar writes on the need to foster effective collaboration between philanthropy, business corporations, and civil society in the face of growing repression around the world.
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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to slowly watch the world rebuild itself after a devastating year? Working as a TAI fellow during this momentous spring offered me a front-row seat to the recovery work being done around the world – but new challenges are continuing to rise. As civic space becomes more repressed around the globe, some in the private sector are more forthright in acknowledging the inherent link between a vibrant civil society, a stable business environment, and profitability.
Yet despite the desire of more corporations to engage on these issues, there are collaboration gaps and trust issues between business and civil society. My time at TAI affirmed my belief that philanthropic funders can help bridge this gap.
A Downward Slope
According to the CIVICUS Monitor which tracks and rates changes in the civic space of countries around the world, over 43% of the world’s population now lives in a repressed country – a figure that has rapidly climbed from 19% in 2018. What is the impact of this shrinking civic space on business operations? Increased government autocratization that often leads to lack of government accountability, an increase in corruption, and suppression of free speech and internet access.
Environments born from policies that weaken civic space are unstable and decrease profitability for businesses operating in these repressed states. Having a robust civic space also allows corporations to be warned of local risks that may disrupt a business’s operations and reputation.
Corporations must also consider their bottom line: to what extent are they willing to risk their relationships with governments in the fight to protect civic space? Taking a firm stand on civic space-related issues could be viewed as criticizing official government policies and result in commercial and legal consequences for the companies.
The ongoing coup and subsequent protests in Myanmar highlight this corporate dilemma. Some firms have suspended ongoing operations in Myanmar in protest of the military’s violence against civilian protestors. But while certain companies such as Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz have paused operations due to growing instability, others like Chevron and Total have not over fears of legal reprisals against local employees. Navigating the corporate dilemma is a challenge when operational decisions intersect with human rights and civic space concerns.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I believe a framework for civic protection will require developing multistakeholder strategies – incorporating funders, corporations, and CSOs. Funders can act as a bridge-builder – for example by providing necessary insights for corporations on regional contexts that funders already work in.
Funders can also ease CSO fears of corporate co-option and help build safe spaces for more genuine trust-building and collaboration.
TAI members have expertise in social issues related to shrinking civic space and have developed long-standing links with NGOs and communities that corporations often lack. The MacArthur Foundation is one such example, where decades of grantmaking experience culminated in their larger On Nigeria effort with $66.9 million in grants to 96 organizations.
What Experience Can We Learn From? The Cases of Ford Foundation and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE)
Ford Foundation has been proactive in understanding how to leverage its role in working with businesses to advance societal goals. Ford’s Corporate Involvement (CI) Initiative was geared towards understanding how foundations could work with businesses and communities to generate “win-win” outcomes.
While their research predominantly focused on impacting low-income communities, Ford built up their vision for a “three-legged stool” of public-private community alliances. Such alliances get to the heart of my argument: that culminating collaborations between key players in protecting civic space can help transform this field as we know it. Ford’s research provided ways for nonprofits to understand how to collaborate with businesses and enact positive social change.
While not the original focus, I believe the CI Initiative could be viewed through the specific lens of civic space protection. In their report, Ford notes that foundations would find it beneficial to work with corporations to capitalize on financial holdings, natural resources, social bonds, and human capital in order to elevate the funder-corporate collaboration. By leveraging these assets, funders will be able to advance social goals in new ways for improving civil society and the philanthropic space. We thus learn through Ford’s research that funder-business collaborations can help make sustainable improvements in business operating practices that will in turn, respond to civil society worries.
The Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE) did just that in a bid to protect internet access and online freedom under repressive governments. CIPE worked with the National Democratic Institute and the Center for International Media Assistance in creating a multi-year joint initiative to support protectors of civic space in applying internet standards essential to democratic governance.
This initiative included civic organizations, media, and the business community in bringing together voices from the public and private sectors in establishing the importance of open internet. CIPE was able to create a platform that connected civic, political, and private sector leaders who worked together in developing local-focused strategies to challenge restrictive internet spaces.
This collaborative movement was possible through CIPE’s role as a funder in creating the platform, participating businesses highlighting the role of the internet in increased innovation and productivity, and the inclusion of civil society organizations to implement a defense of internet freedom.
As governments continue to repress, protecting civic spaces is in the interest of everyone who wants to demand transparency, hold government accountable, and secure the benefits of open societies. I see potential for funders to find ways to host platforms, provide guidance, and direct initiatives directed towards bringing together genuinely motivated businesses and CSOs who otherwise find it difficult to collaborate.