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Uprooted: corporatisation & compromise in NGO campaigns

Uprooted: corporatisation & compromise in NGO campaigns

Two and a Half Measures

The corporatisation of NGOs is now a well established phenomenon. Corporate partnerships, together with generous grants and an army of paid members, ensure that CEO salaries, glistening HQs and huge budgets are all just part of another day at the office for the biggest NGO brands.

Campaigning for social change is a key role of NGOs, who can influence government and corporate policies whilst highlighting important issues to the public. Corporatisation has undoubtedly compromised these campaigns, where strong leadership is needed to highlight the root causes of issues and hold those responsible to account.

Indeed, with fundraising now a top priority, NGOs are extremely wary of controversial campaigns.   A fear of upsetting their corporate funders and their legion of individual donors has dramatically altered the tone and content of campaigns. Moreover, it is a thing of the past for NGOs to challenge the neoliberal model which has driven inequality and climate change. And whilst this new approach has helped generate huge revenues, it has also debased the effectiveness of crucial campaigns needed to tackle soaring levels of CO2 and inequality.

This Changes Very Little

Our response to the crisis of climate change has been a total lack of political will, culminating in a set of lackluster voluntary “pledges” squeezed out of world leaders at the recently signed COP21 agreement. As even its best case scenario will still rapidly deplete our “Carbon budget” we can safely assume that a 2⁰ world is all but pipe dream. But despite its glaring flaws, the mood of many, although not all, Big Green members around COP21 has been one of triumphalism.

COP21 corporatisation
United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP21. Paris, 2015. Photo from Flickr.

It is only fitting that Big Green would take a glass-half-full view of this half-measure, given their legacy of compromise in the climate struggle. Instead of the hard line needed to swiftly slash emissions, Big Green has repeatedly run inadequate campaigns which fail to tackle crucial issues. For instance, as a fundamental driver of emissions, the burning of fossil fuels needs rapidly ended. Yet to this day, the Environmental Defence Fund still supports the myth of “sustainable fracking”, naturally with generous helpings of petrodollars This further obfuscates an already confused climate debate, where many people are unaware of the folly of fracking. Ultimately it detracts from the bottom line: there is no sustainable alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

That our rampant consumerist culture sits at the heart of carbon emissions is crucial issue which has largely been ignored by Big Greens campaign. For instance, despite the huge role of animal agriculture in emissions, not even Greenpeace is prioritizing reducing meat consumption. Given recent estimates that a widespread switch to vegetarianism could slash emissions by 66%, the failure of Big Green groups to highlight this issue is inexcusable. Indeed, they have failed to encourage all round reduction in consumption. Instead, we are simply encouraged to “greenwash” our shopping habits with more consumption.

light switch corporatisation
Is simply turning off light switches enough? Photo from Flickr.

The focus instead has been on safe, low-friction issues which don’t fundamentally challenge our way of life such as turning off lights, because they fear offending members and scaring off potential donors. A fixation with fundraising has therefore trumped truly effective campaigning, and result of this strategy is incontrovertible. After decades of compromise, global emissions are only just stalling, the best climate deal we have is inadequate and most of us are not making the necessary lifestyle change. This crisis demands that we change so much, yet the changes pushed by Big Green are simply not enough.

Say My Name

Big Green’s climate movement is far from the only victim of corporatisation. Likewise, the fight against our planet’s grinding inequality has been confounded by weakened NGO campaigns.

All too often, campaigns citing social injustices are undermined by a neglect to spell out who should be held accountable, despite accountability being vital for social change. As reputation is everything to multinational corporations, companies can quickly bow to pressure from consumers as the result of a campaign focused on their code of conduct. Yet many charities are wary of directly attacking companies, which results in campaigns that are vague and watered down. For instance, in Oxfam’s focus on inequality, their coverage of Tax Evasion shows a distinct reluctance to highlight companies such as Starbucks and Hewlett-Packard (HP) who exploit tax loopholes. Furthermore, accountancy giants like PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) are merely mentioned in passing, despite being well known for promoting tax evasion on an “industrial scale.”

With this is mind, a look at Oxfam’s board of directors is particularly disturbing. In a jarring conflict of interest, the senior board includes Rosalind Conway of PWC and Mohammad Ali from HP. An NGO campaigning to close tax loopholes working with senior officials from companies which profits from keeping them wide open makes for a strange relationship indeed.

The neglect to hold corporations accountable is a critical failure of the NGO industry. Without specifically targeting firms like PWC, campaigns are less effective as they do not create the pressure needed to force companies to adopt good codes of ethics. Confrontation has largely been abandoned in favour of partnerships, effective at increasing revenues but less likely to bring about social change.

iceberg corporatisation
Just the tip of the iceberg…Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The N Word

A failure to hold corporate players to account is merely the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the issues highlighted in this article is an economic system so rarely discussed in mainstream media that its existence barely registers with the public.

Neoliberalism is an ideology which was propelled into the mainstream during the Thatcher and Reagan era. To maximize economic growth, it deregulated laws designated to protect both people and the environment whilst saddling our economies with unsustainable debt and choking our public services with austerity. It ignited the consumerist frenzy which enabled carbon emissions to soar, whilst driving the rapidly growing gulf between rich and poor. Indeed, what neoliberalism has produced is not only an inequality of wealth, but an inequality of power.

Despite its striking relevance to the challenges we face, neoliberalism is almost never touched upon by the NGO industry. Inequality is a direct effect of neoliberalism, yet the likes of Oxfam and Action Aid rarely even mention the word. Why are NGOs unwilling to openly discuss an issue so vital to their struggles? Sadly, most are reluctant to take the risk of critiquing an ideology so ingrained in the mainstream for fear of appearing radical and alienating their supporters and corporate partners. The result is that we are no longer asked to question our economic system, let alone challenge it. Such debate in the mainstream is over before it ever begins.

Corporatisation has granted NGOs with great power to do good, but they have not lived up to this responsibility. As their funders, we the public also have great power to influence the policies of the biggest NGOs. It therefore falls on us to demand an end to their compromises and the beginning of a proper debate.

Featured image shows an uprooted tree in Barguna, Bangladesh. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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Tom Jarman

Consultant at Zimele UK
Tom Jarman works for Zimele UK, a small charity in Wales, and blogs about international development at

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