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Jonathon Porritt
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Have NGOs sold out?

Jonathon Porritt

13th July 2009

Accusations that NGOs have got far too cosy with big business have been around for years. But where does the blame really lie?

I’ve just finished reading Oxfam’s new report on climate change and poverty, Suffering the Science, prepared especially for the G8 meeting now underway in Italy. Gloomy, but hugely powerful stuff:

'Climate change's most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase in hunger. The countries with existing problems in feeding their people are those most at risk from climate change. Millions of farmers will have to give up traditional crops as they experience changes in the seasons that they and their ancestors have depended on. Climate-related hunger may become the defining human tragedy of this century.'

It's not all doom and gloom. The report replays a lot of Oxfam’s excellent proposals on sustainable agriculture, with a new emphasis on adaptation to climate change. There's just so much that could be happening right now.

Coming hot on the heels of the equally impactful report from the Global Humanitarian Forum, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the development/poverty/equity end of the spectrum of NGOs involved in this area is playing a massive part in civil society’s efforts to spur politicians on.

And that brought to mind, yet again, my old friend Richard Sandbrook – a former Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, and Trustee of both Forum for the Future and The Eden Project for many years before his untimely death. He’s been in my thoughts a lot lately (having just given the second Richard Sandbrook Memorial Lecture a couple of weeks ago), wondering how he would be responding to the growing levels of activity in the run up to the Copenhagen Conference.

Although Richard was himself an NGO-man through and through, he spent a disproportionate amount of time giving them a very hard time for their negativity, territoriality and all-round lack of creativity in bringing forward new ideas to accelerate the solutions agenda – particularly as regards their inability to work properly with business.

Most NGOs took it all in good heart ('don’t worry, it’s just Richard off on another bout of NGO-bashing'), but others used to get quite grumpy about it, even accusing him of having ‘sold out’ to big corporates like Rio Tinto, big forestry companies and so on.

Forum for the Future gets more than its fair share of the 'selling out' critique, and we just put up with that as part and parcel of operating in this high risk area. But we too were a bit mystified at Richard’s anti NGO tirades.

And I wonder if he would still be taking that line today? So many NGOs now work in one way or another with the private sector, including quite radical NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Even Oxfam is deepening its relationship with some of the biggest companies in the world.

And on a macro-scale, in terms of the balance between government, business and civil society, as agents of change in their respective spheres, I would also argue that the continuing failure of governments to drive a completely different model of wealth creation leaves even the most progressive companies struggling to do much more than mitigating the worst effects of business-as-usual economic growth. Which means, logically, that the onus is even more on NGOs (as embodiments of civil society) to make it possible for governments to do what they are absolutely going to have to do – sooner or later.

So I ended up using my Memorial Lecture to suggest that Richard's deep frustration with NGOs might, by now, have moved into a rather different place. But it would, no doubt, have been equally challenging!

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and founder of Green Futures magazine. Visit his official blog page here.


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