Civil society challenges for 2011

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Over the past few weeks, comments have been made about various events in national and international papers. Articles published, in Le Monde in particular, asked questions about the difficulty of establishing causality between the much talked-about medicine MEDIATOR and several hundred estimated deaths. Another article echoed the research that will establish that the food our toddlers eat daily contains carcinogenic products. In other articles, NGO representatives and economists endlessly wonder whether the concept of finance is acceptable and credible. Some even wonder whether it isn’t an oxymoron.

A few weeks ago, an international conference was held in Saint Petersburg to try and save tigers which are seriously under threat of extinction. The possibility of raising tens of millions of dollars is being considered.

Every day, we have to decipher and decode an anthology of contradictory information.

Our demands for professionalism and lucidity are not always enough to avoid the trap of instrumentalisation and manipulation. The problems that are raised are very complex and they generate anxiety. This not only hinders their analysis but also makes the challenges even more difficult to overcome.

All this leads to simplifications that are disastrous for critical thinking and citizen mobilisation.

We must remember certain facts to understand the issues better. We might have forgotten, but until the 1980s, nobody had ever asked nor dared to ask a company to look after general interests and public good.

Today, a thousand investments in favour of biodiversity and sustainable development are flourishing on the internet sites of CAC 40 and stock exchange jewels, as well as in Frankfurt and London …

Big water operators now sometimes seem like the best promoters of the common good of humanity thus exposing the concept to the risk of becoming hackneyed. The language element of this new propaganda is becoming more sophisticated. It is becoming increasingly seductive and it is of course, as foolish to demonise it as it is to take it at face value.

For example: just as oil companies are really trying to convince us that they are, in a way, – and it is barely an exaggeration – humanity’s benefactors (one just needs to take a look at their websites), we discover that some of these same groups have spent tens of millions of dollars to try and discredit climatologists who have spent the past few years sounding the alarm about the worsening greenhouse effect threat that is weighing on the planet and future generations.

Everyone will agree that the world can be saved if more and more economic actors, including the most powerful ones, work the fact that it is by being increasingly virtuous that one is increasingly profitable into their industrial, economic and financial strategies.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a company being virtuous meant that it was paternalistic and that it built an orphanage or a gymnasium.

Today, being virtuous means adapting one’s strategy to the threats facing the planet in a sustainable and genuine way. These threats remind us of our own frailty. Virtue is sometimes an authentic way for industrial or financial actors to give up immediate profit by fully bearing the consequences of co-responsibility that those who claim to be the new savers of biodiversity demand.

There is an intrinsic contradiction between the logic of financial capitalism which seeks short term returns on financial investments and claiming to be the new protectors of general interests which requires giving up the tyranny of such short term returns on financial investments.

The difficulty for NGOs is finding an intelligent equidistant point in the face of the wide variety of behaviour and agendas of industrial and financial actors.

Like others, I believe that seeking dialogues and sometimes partnerships must be explored with tireless determination without any fanaticism or do-goodism.

Even if we must accept the risk of the chicken and the egg to change some companies’ behaviour, the important thing is to not be made a fool of too often.

NGO-Company partnerships or public-private partnerships are a spectacular illustration of this difficult dialectic. The experience of the lawyers of the Sherpa association’s shows us that the best and worst exist side by side. The least difficult way obviously lies with tertiary sector companies. This means companies that do not produce merchandise and which do not exploit natural resources.

The closer we get to companies that guarantee our energy independence and that, as nature’s curse would have it, are the very same ones that exploit resources in States that don’t have any judges – or even if they do have them they are corrupt -, the more the logic of dialogue and even more so, of partnership, is dangerous, even if it will become increasingly possible and desirable. Many of us believe that the number of partnerships should be increased so that workshops in Bangladesh and Indonesia will stop child labour in disgraceful conditions, while balls and clothes are being produced there for our children.

Clothing companies that are increasing voluntary commitments, must honour these commitments in ways other than droning on during annual general assemblies. They must do so all along the supply chain as well as make sure that they are upheld by their subsidiaries and subbranches.

We know that there is another obstacle. The more economic actors are under the influence of the world’s 500 most powerful economic actors such as HedgeFunds, the less ethically reactive they will be.

Total, Gap and Veolia may be increasingly conscious of their public image but today, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan do not share this concern at all.

It is up to us as civil society actors who wish to conciliate technicality, integrity and humility with ambition, to find a path in this multiplicity. If we stick firmly to the nuclear core of our convictions, we will be more credible and irreproachable when it comes to our compromises, and even our concessions.

Civil society challenges for 2011 by William Bourdon,

président de Sherpa

Text – courtesy of the author

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