Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine reminds us that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is both a reflection of the times we live in and also dynamic! Numerous corporations, acting in response to social and political pressure, are withdrawing from Russia on the grounds that human rights, and a nation’s rights, are being trampled on. This is not to say that these decisions necessarily come easily: there may be ethical, strategic, stakeholder and political tensions. But the point is that perhaps the most basic societal issue of war and peace – and its governance – enters CSR agendas. Ethical investors are even considering the defense industries as suitable for their assets.
In recent decades several challenges have emerged which appear to move CSR from a relative comfort zone of discretionary activities to more core societal governance challenges, some of these manifestly involve some corporate culpability (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis, international supply chain labor abuses, climate change, ecological degradation), others like international pandemics, war and international health and welfare challenges reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, may reflect wider causes. Nonetheless, corporations claim some responsibility for these issues. Even corporate ‘talk’, as well as ‘walk’, contribute to the redefinition of CSR to take in core societal governance challenges.
This is understood as right and proper from some perspectives. Medieval corporations were established precisely to achieve public ends – often of basic infrastructure. Industrial corporations were pioneers of C19th health, welfare and education systems. In many developing countries corporations take responsibility for physical security of their employees and communities.
But in the late C20th a view took hold that this was somehow inappropriate. Milton Friedman’s famous 1970 critique of CSR was precisely on the grounds that corporations are not accountable for addressing such issues: governments are. Many CSR advocates, whether fearing a corporate takeover of government or vice versa, and have advocated a dichotomy between the responsibilities (social and economic) of corporations and those of governments.
Yet the last twenty years have witnessed two related phenomena which challenge the dichotomous view. First, corporations have chosen to engage in social and environmental agendas which are core for national and international governments (e.g. human rights, corruption, access to resources), whether in response to pressure or by virtue of their own ethical or strategic judgement. Secondly, governments have encouraged corporations to enjoin public efforts, through their policies of endorsement and cajoling, financial incentives, partnerships and even mandates (e.g. for energy markets, non-financial reporting, supply chain due diligence).
Governments have recognized the distinctive resources that corporations can bring to governance questions (e.g. to innovate, to experiment, to reach beyond national boundaries, to collaborate). Interestingly in cases of mandate, governments often cede to corporations discretion as to how, rather than whether, to comply. Thus, for example, corporations can choose whether to cynically comply with international weapons sanctions on a country to sell arms by the legal use of third parties to effectively maintain the sales OR to embrace the spirit and intention of the sanctions and uniformly cease the sales to the regime in question.
But Friedman’s critique nags and critics of corporations point to unaccountable corporate power through lobbying and informal influence. Corporations lack a traditional democratic mandate. We elect MPs and governments, but not CEOs. So is engagement with public policy (rather than legal compliance) really the business of corporations?
My short answer is ‘yes’ on the grounds that businesses are members of society and that corporations are afforded particular privileges by the state, and thus have clear public duties. But the situation is not satisfactory. In most democratic jurisdictions corporations’ roles ‘to make’ and ‘to take’ regulation are not clearly specified and thus their accountability is unclear. Moreover, new international multi-stakeholder initiatives which tie corporations in with each other and with civil society often fail to effectively regulate errant organizations.
So we have a challenge which is about CSR and politics: how to better build corporations into political institutions? I suggest that the challenge is shared – for corporations to review their political participation to ensure that it is citizenly; for civil society to engage in defining how corporations can be more accountable and to engage more directly in corporate accountability (perhaps with support from government?); and for governments to review how accountably corporations influence and respond to regulation.
About the Author
Jeremy Moon is Professor at Copenhagen Business School, and Chair of Sustainability Governance Group. Jeremy has written widely about the rise, context, dynamics and impact of CSR. He is particularly interested in corporations’ political roles and in the regulation of CSR and corporate sustainability.
In recent years, through experience and discussions in various projects and workshops dealing with urban development, this key question keeps returning:
How to best promote citizen engagement?
While citizen engagement is a large topic within urban development, so are entrepreneurship and grassroots movements. How do we perceive these various terms? In which ways do these forms of organization converge, where do they diverge? More importantly, could we change the civic engagement rates if this work would be perceived as steps towards further opportunity (gaining) instead of ‘volunteer work’ (giving)?
A known challenge within citizen engagement deals with age groups. It is not difficult to engage young children (up to 12 years old) and older citizens to take part in local actions, however it becomes a struggle to engage youth and young adults as they see little return in value as results tend to be intangible or unclear. Within this group, perception plays a big role in how ideas are sold (and consumed), so it might be time to possibly bring the concepts of civic engagement and entrepreneurship closer together. But where do we start?
A first point to consider is how these key concepts might be popularly understood. When mentioning citizen engagement, images of volunteers coming together to discuss, collaborate, work and vote on ideas come to mind. When talking about entrepreneurship, notions of highly driven visionaries or million dollar companies emerge.
Citizen engagement and entrepreneurship are rarely seen as equals. However, in both cases you find similarities. It is not uncommon for both groups to engage in a large amount of unpaid labour, long days, hard work and convincing people to join you and (most probably) gathering funds to execute whatever dream you may have.
In these settings, co-creation has received a deserved attention as a method, and it has proven to be a valuable tool as it allows for diverse stakeholders to come together to develop and carry out ideas, creating shared agency. However, before that first co-creation session lies the true challenge in both user engagement and entrepreneurship: Creating momentum before the momentum, to make one person (or a few) motivated ‘out of thin air’.
Therefore, a second point to consider is the top-down setup of projects, inviting citizens to engage with a specific topic or local pre-defined issue. Although project results might impact locals’ everyday, the personal gain might be too dissolved into the hours spent, thus people refraining from engaging.
In order to challenge the current top-down scenario, the perception and format of these activities could be transformed to facilitating processes to let locals themselves suggest and carry the types of projects that interest them, seeing a clearer link to ‘what’s in it for me’. For unpaid efforts, the pay-off has to be visible and tangible.
Furthermore, associations, municipalities and other public institutions need to create means to replicate successful bottom-up initiatives. Some of these initiatives could then be linked to local businesses and related opportunities.
From a service design perspective, a way to bring this information into people’s households could be to use the existing information channels popular amongst the local community to allow for an initial knowledge entry point. For instance, as citizens receive a public waste sorting information sheet, one could attach a ‘waste project opportunity’ sheet. This initial touchpoint could be a it’s your turn blueprint, a step-by-step guide showing what to do to bring your ideas out into the world. So, a project idea invitation presented as an opportunity at your fingertips. The ‘hot themes’ in the current market should be highlighted while also offering inspirational examples. Programmes to support these initiatives should be in place, facilitating the citizen engagement startup process as a possible social ladder. Such a setup could transform current structures, making cities and citizens, not venture capitalists, the true cradle for entrepreneurship.
This blog was inspired by a recent participation in a workshop focusing on urban development, discussing visions for green and social meeting places in urban residential areas. During the discussion, a number of key questions were raised concerning how to best promote citizen engagement. The workshop was organized by Copenhagen University and VIVAPLAN, with presentations from VIVAPLAN, Urbanplanen Partnerskab, C40, KAB and Copenhagen Municipality. The visions discussed during the workshop are to feed into policy recommendations for sustainable and inclusive developments in Denmark and Sweden.
Isabel Fróes is a postdoc at MSC Department at Copenhagen Business School working in three EU projects (Cities-4-People, iPRODUCE and BECOOP). Isabel also has wide industry experience and has worked both as a user researcher and service design consultant for various companies in Denmark and internationally. For more detail please see her Linkedin profile.
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, the University of Bath’s Business and Society blog and Copenhagen Business School’s Business of Society blog have teamed up to present March for Gender. This month we will explore research focusing on gender, or research findings that have specific implications for women.
In our final piece of the month Maria Figueroa looks beyond gender, and explains how business education and research can create a fully inclusive society that leaves no one behind.
The ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that society should be inclusive, environmentally just and enabling economic prosperity leaving no one behind. Business knowledge, education and research in these areas keep however advancing in separated disciplines, often directing the focus of attention to partial responses that may contribute to perpetuate conditions that leave people behind. Cohesion in achieving the SDGs goal of leaving no one behind cannot rely in adapting sameness of solutions. It requires attending to societal differences and facilitating the multiplication of ideas, creativity and forms of collective action and knowledge production and dissemination.
There is a critical role for research and education to help deepen the inquiry of what it takes to leave no one behind particularly a key role in business education.
The ethos of business education and research for sustainability is to prepare private actors, investors, new business models, organizations and institutional actors in finding ways of addressing SDGs. In the selection and adoption of seventeen development goals of 2015 involvement of a great array of societal actors, from national governments to business representatives, big corporations and civil society organizations was ensured. The resulting agenda for action made emphasis to acknowledge the central role in achieving SDGs to be played by private actors, private finance, and businesses in forms of public private partnerships.
However, more than five years later, only marginal changes are tangible within business school education and research and a weak articulation of the bold SDG agenda for change.
Besides individual courses and occasional initiatives, no major overhaul or programmatic educational shift effort within or across departments has challenge the operation and scope of business education.
A common approach in universities and business schools has been identification of how many SDGs goals are being targeted in their scope of education and current action, and reporting on these as evidence of engagement with SDGs. A similar approach serves to help businesses and public actors learn and report on what they are already doing to engage with SDGs. This together with helping business explore effective reactive stances to avoid societal or environmental crisis or challenges emerging. These two common approaches to business research and education make no clear inroad for how business and private actors can contribute to leaving no one behind.
The ethos of civil society is to generate voices and manifestations that reveal the extent of economic, social and environmental discontent, lack of improvement and unjust conditions and of articulating demands for action and changes at all levels. Recent events have elevated voices in movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Fridays-for-the-Future, Extinction Rebellion, Indigenous communities and other organized voices in society ranging from extreme right movements to nature representatives organizing other than human voices (forest, soil, pollinators, biodiversity).
The complexity of the current climate and environmental challenges and increasing volume and presence of these voices cannot be dismissed in business education and research, or handled in separated efforts as matter of concern only to businesses operating in international or developing regions and localities.
Leaving no one behind requires engaging in knowledge production that gives attention to all forms of engagement in business and societal interactions. This attention should facilitate changes in education that to produce exceptional novelty and innovation and to nurture a potential to advance knowledge of practical and academic high quality, education that is capable of setting new frontier research bringing in systemic interactions within a variety of academic disciplines and ensuring practical and transformative business knowledge with a holistic and environmentally just take toward sustainability transition.
Business schools are posed to advance breakthrough knowledge to meet the “leave no one behind” goal, tackling several areas from the production and service processes transparency specifically in value creation, to emphasising sustainability and environmental justice through the company’s technological advancements and presenting sustainable values, mission and vision.
Furthermore, business education need incorporating appraisal of systemic change associated with challenging processes and their ecological and social impact and behavior change. With the capability to increase the value for the environment, participation of nature in business innovations, the understanding of what enhances people’s agency, what provision safe wards participation, and improves cooperation and what helps to unleash individuals vitality and imagination and can contribute to co-create new market niches and business opportunities.
Maria Figueroa is an Associate Professor in Sustainability Management at the Department of Management Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. Her research intersects scholarship from urban sustainability science, comparative international politics of climate mitigation, innovation, and partnerships for sustainable development. She focuses on the assessments of drivers, trends and challenges of low carbon transitions and sustainable development.
As the global Covid-19 pandemic spread through Europe and North America, companies raced to communicate how they were responding to the crisis. Advertising that focuses on a company’s response to humanitarian crises is hardly new. Every holiday season features a parade of brands touting their seasonal partnerships with charitable causes. Yet these exercises in “Covid-branding” struck a particular nerve with both consumers and media commentators because so many of the brands stuck to the same script. Quickly that script even became the subject of satire.
‘The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle.’
Amanda Hess, The New York Times, May 22, 2020
These patterns are important. In the uncertain early weeks of the pandemic, as governments were still crafting their responses, the stories brands told played a role in shaping how the public made sense of the crisis. What kind of a crisis was it? What sort of solutions did it need? What role should business play in delivering them? Covid-branding offered answers to those questions.
In this briefing note, we present a preliminary analysis of Covid-branding by companies in Europe and North America during March and April 2020. Our analysis finds that messaging clustered clearly into two ways could engage: ‘Covid-helping’ and ‘Covid-coping.’ These messages of ‘managing the pandemic’ and ‘managing yourself’ frame the consumption of goods and services as a way that consumers can show they care, presenting shopping as a form of everyday heroism. In this way, they make the case that private sector has a role to play in humanitarian response.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on the global economy. Measures to combat the spread of the virus, including border closures, and national lockdowns affecting one-third of the world’s population, shut down much industrial production and pushed white-collar professionals to remote work. These measures, coupled with a fall in consumers’ own confidence in response to the health crisis, contributed to rising unemployment, falling consumer activity, and the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
This context, with consumer activity declining overall and shifting from closed stores to online retailers, placed pressure on brands to compete for a share of the smaller e-commerce pie. At the same time, the recession placed pressure on marketing professionals to demonstrate their relevance at a time of overall corporate retrenchment.
We focus our analysis on online communications, especially social media output. Social media marketing is often informal in tone and crafted quickly to respond to real-time events, so that brands can ride the waves of attention paid to viral news stories, from royal babies to sporting events.4 Most research about this practice has suggested brands choose to focus on positive or neutral stories to avoid mistakes, as humorous tweets about a serious event can backfire. That makes Covid-branding in the early weeks of the pandemic, when infection and death rates were rising, unusual.
We also examine promotional emails and newsletters, a form of content marketing. Content marketers have begun to develop more journalistic skills, including as storytellers and explainers of complex phenomena, and indeed many former journalists are employed as content marketers. Covid-branding, in which brands help consumers make sense of the emerging crisis, is an example of this phenomenon.
These online forms have not received much attention from researchers of corporate humanitarianism, which has focused on more traditional forms of print and broadcast advertising. We hope that this brief typology of how marketers used these newer forms in the Covid-19 pandemic encourages further research into these formats.
Covid-branding as Covid-helping
Brands that emphasized their role in helping to manage the pandemic did so in distinct ways. To understand this, we considered two aspects of each marketing message: First, whether companies are making an engaged or disengaged intervention. Companies which are engaged use their own business capacities toward the Covid-19 cause. Second, we consider whether companies are claiming to directly or indirectly impact the Covid-19 crisis itself. We investigate whether the brand claims to address the medical situation (direct) or indirect societal outcomes of the pandemic, including economic impacts.
The four modes of engagement
Direct Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into directly fighting Covid
Some companies with core operations in the fields directly linked to fighting the pandemic (i.e. health care or logistics companies) quickly began communications around their role.
This Novo Nordisk Facebook advertisement shows healthcare workers holding up a sign reading “Thanks” in Danish. Novo Nordisk is a leading pharmaceutical company. Photographs of healthcare professionals at work in Novo Nordisk-made protective gear signaled company’s direct engagement.
Examples of countries where these products are in use underscores that the company serves a modern, global, and racially and gender-diverse group of professionals. Other direct engagement included shipping company Mærsk tweeting about “Mærsk Bridge,’ an air bridge and supply chain operation to transport PPE to healthcare workers.
Indirect Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into indirectly managing Covid
Since direct business engagement was only possible for companies whose core business was in medical or logistical operations, many companies emphasised managing indirect societal impacts of the pandemic in their early response.
As a food and drinks business with a national supply chain, Starbucks was able to use its core capacities to address indirect economic impact of pandemic on food supply. Promotional email highlights corporate donations of 700,000 meals to food banks and use of company logistics network to assist foodbanks with transport.
Makes the case that hunger “is part of the crisis” to underscore relevance of this indirect engagement.
Other indirect engagement included Draper James, the American actress Reese Witherspoon’s fashion brand, announced on its Instagram account on April 2, donations of dresses for teachers (deemed essential workers during pandemic); campaign backfired when dress supplies ran out.
Direct Disengaged: Business helps others directly fight Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to medical needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the Cover crisis.
A promotional email from Camper highlights the use of 3D printers from its manufacturing operation to produce medical visors. The Email also highlights donations of shoes and slippers to staff and patients in hospitals.
Camper does not claim that they are themselves engaged in work to combat the medical crisis, but rather that they are making resources and equipment available to others who can do so.
Other direct disengaged examples included fashion brand Armedangels making cloth masks while explicitly stating on Facebook that they could not protect the wearer – “we can’t produce medical masks” – but that 2 euro from the sales of each mask would be donated to Doctors Without Borders, or gas company Crusoe Energy Systems announcing that they were donating computing power to Stanford University coronavirus research.
Indirect disengaged: Business helps others indirectly manage Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to urgent economic or societal needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the impact of the Covid crisis.
Instagram post by crowd-funding platform GoFundMe promoting that its platform can be used by consumers to identify causes to support. Following the link to “learn more” shows company also offering free consulting to nonprofits on how to raise additional funds.
The company is not mobilizing its own resources to support Covid-related causes, but rather facilitating donations to other organizations through information sharing. Such consulting activity is not an ordinary part of the company’s core business.
Other indirect disengaged examples included Facebook offering grants for small businesses in the United States and using its network to promote the existing loan program from the US government.
Covid-branding as Covid-coping
Many brand engagements we examined did not make any claims to be helping combat the crisis, or its social impact, at all. Rather they focused on helping individual consumers to cope with the circumstances surrounding the crisis and its personal impact on themselves.
Because these “Covid-coping” messages focused on helping individuals, rather than society or the economy, our analysis focused on the demographics of what kind of consumers each type of “coping” message addressed, as well as what the messages said. We identified three coping mechanisms brands sold to consumers in these Covid-coping messages: coping-through-practicality, coping-through-pleasure and coping-through-denial.
Like indirect Covid-helping, it portrays shopping as way to address consequences of the pandemic, but instead of focusing on consequences for society, it targets how consumers can address their own needs.
An Instagram post by Zoku, a real estate company managing coworking spaces, offered private office rooms for professionals needing a socially distant office away from their household. Emphasis is put on a spare and clean layout of the office and “peace and quiet” for workers.
It suggests appeal to professionals with children struggling with disruption to work practices in shared family homes. Coping-through-practicality engagements largely addressed themselves to consumers in their identities as professionals and parents.
Other coping-through-practicality examples included laptop manufacturers advertising tools for working from home; home furnishings brands advertising tools for cooking at home; and phone, internet and electricity providers advertising their services as essential infrastructure for remote working and home-schooling. Marketing of this type emphasizes how brands could help families and businesses carry on “as normal” during a period of crisis.
Exclusively comprised of brands in the fashion, fitness and lifestyle industries, with messages targeted to young and predominantly white women; present luxury goods as means of coping with pandemic through ‘self-care’.
A promotional newsletter for the “athleisure” brand Jolyn depicts a slim and muscular white woman on an inflatable pool float wearing sunglasses and painted toenails. Sunlight appears to reflect off the body of water in which she floats, with a caption advertising a “Bikini for staycation.” The Image and caption present the lockdown, which compelled individuals to stay home from their usual recreational activities, as a “staycation,” an unexpected source of free time at home.
Other coping-through-pleasure messages included advertisements from fashion brands including Anthropologie and Nicole Miller advertising loungewear as “self-care style” and clothing for “virtual dates or happy hours,” as well as make-up brands offering online tutorials for those with “more time (inside) on our hands.”
These messages present the health crisis as an opportunity for women to take a “break” from work outside the home and relax with home-bound versions of their usual recreational activities. They draw on influencer culture, which depicts recreation as a full-time occupation. Coping-through-pleasure offers the chance to purchase some of the influencer lifestyle, where the pandemic is not a stressor, and one can escape at a moment’s notice to a sunlit pool.
Targeted widely to all consumers, these messages suggested that consumers shop as though the pandemic were not taking place, or advertised products which made light of the pandemic.
A full page newspaper advertisement in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s mostread newspaper, on 7 March, by two Italian ski resorts, Bormio and Livigno, captioned “Live the mountain with full lungs: There’s a snowy place where feeling great is contagious!”
At the time of advertisement running, lockdown was dissuading tourists from traveling to Italy, putting pressure on ski resorts, while deaths from the respiratory virus – which kills by targeting the lungs specifically – were at their highest in northern Italy, where ski resorts are concentrated.
Other coping-through-denial advertisements included Passports, a travel rewards program, contacting members in mid-March, when concerns about virus spread were focused on cruise ships, to advertise “the best pricing and exceptional bonuses” on celebrity cruises, and online retailers of topical and humorous T-shirts advertising limited range clothing with coronavirus-related captions. Notably, these engagements came broadly from the early weeks of our sample, and brands appeared to shy away from explicitly seeking to make light of the crisis or encouraging consumers to travel in spite of it, by the end of March 2020 when more severe lockdown and suppression measures were in place across Europe.
Implications for Brands
The different types of early Covid-branding in our sample, whether they focus on helping or coping with the pandemic, offer some cautionary lessons for brands.
About Commodifying Compassion
‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ is a research project focused on understanding how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism. An international team of researchers funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (2017-2021), we examine ethical consumption intended to benefit humanitarian causes from the perspectives of consumers, businesses, NGOs and recipients. The research will produce a better understanding by humanitarian organizations and businesses leading to more ethical fundraising, donors weighing consumption-based models as part of more effective aid, and consumers making more informed choices about ‘helping’ by buying brand aid products. To learn more about our work, visit the website.
Maha Rafi Atalis a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School, where her research focuses on corporate power, corporate social responsibility and corporate influence in the media. She is a co- Investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. http://www.maha-rafi-atal.com
Lisa Ann Richey is Professor of Globalization at the Copenhagen Business School. She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes. She is the principal investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. https://www.lisaannrichey.com
Photo by Colton Vond, “Obey Consumerism,” March 3, 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.
By Anne Vestergaard, Luisa Murphy, Mette Morsing and Thilde Langevang
Have you ever wondered how SDG 17 is, in fact, delivering on its promise? Does it sometimes cross your mind to what extent cross-sector partnerships are benefitting all parties involved, including those people whose livelihood they are intended to assist and advance? Some years ago, we set out to explore the effectiveness of North-South cross-sector partnerships with a particular focus on providing novel knowledge to understand better the partnerships from the vantage point of its beneficiaries. Some of our main findings have just been published.
Understanding the value of cross-sector partnerships
In research as in practice, there are high hopes for cross-partnerships as the new global governance mechanism. Cross-sector partnerships are presented as particularly well-suited to solve some of the world’s most critical global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and inequality. No one organization, business or institution can do it alone.
It is better to address wicked problems together. It does indeed sound plausible: the more perspectives, the more knowledge, the more resources, the better. However, as we experience the emergence of a great number of cross-sector partnerships, we also see an increasing concern expressed from research and practice about the effectiveness of these partnerships.
Do they really deliver better and more than a government or a business or an NGO could alone? Are they really providing better conditions for the world’s poor? Are cross-sector partnerships more efficient in addressing fundamental problems of inequality?
So far, we have only very little research to substantiate such claims. A large part of current research has so far emphasized the advantages for the (typically North-based) business partner to partake, leaving us with a certain Northern and corporate bias in understanding the value of cross-sector partnerships.
Study of the ‘Best in class cross-sector partnership’
Our study explored what was by the Danish embassy to Ghana assessed as the ‘best in class cross-sector partnership’ involving Ghanaian and Danish actors. Over three years, we visited the cross-sector partnership several times, observed and interviewed the young single mother employees, as well as the Northern business and the Southern NGO partners.
At first glimpse, the ten-year-old partnership looked promising. A number of young mothers had been employed over the years. It was prestigious and competitive to get a job with the partnership. It had its own physical building within the NGO where the women were sitting at a table assembling the jewelry in the designed styles, talking, working and laughing.
When interviewed, the NGO manager or one of their two supervisors were initially present. English conversation was difficult for them. We heard the same kind of appreciation of the partnership as we had heard from their leaders. It was not until next time we arrived that we started to see a potentially problematic pattern arise.
This time, we interviewed the young mothers in their home territory in their villages, where the managers were not present. Also, we had a local translator, so the conversations took place in the women’s local language. All this is just to remind ourselves, how difficult it is to get access to ‘good data’ in such circumstances.
Competence without agency
At this second glance, we found that the cross-sector partnership resulted in what we term ‘competence without agency’ for the beneficiaries. The partnership was found to provide new resources and knowledge to the young single mothers but failed to generate the conditions for these to be transformed into significant changes in their lives.
Only the most capable young women, the ‘viable poor’ were offered a job, excluding the poorest young single mothers in the villages. Women had to travel far to work in the NGO, leaving their children behind in the village and preventing traditional practices of sharing work with family and wider community.
The partnership drew on old craftsmanship from the region which was modified to fit Northern standards – all decided and directed by the Northern entrepreneur, leaving the young mothers with the task of adapting and imitating rather than innovating.
On top of that, income for the young mothers was unstable due to fluctuations in European demand for the product produced, making it impossible for the women to plan ahead and to improve support for their children’s schoolwork.
These were just some of the unexpected, invisible and unpronounced outcomes of the cross-sector partnership which occurred as the entrepreneur and the NGO leaders were focusing on making the partnership work and the Northern government initially supporting the project was happy to see some business result from the collaboration.
SDG 17 through cross-sector partnerships
While the main novel research findings from this study do not deliver an immediately positive tale of ‘how to do partnerships in a few easy steps’, it points importantly to how the whole idea of expecting cross-sector partnerships to work as development agents and to create sustainable development, must take into consideration how to empower those people who the cross-sector partnership is intended to benefit in the long-term.
This implies that instead of assuming that the young single mothers engaged in this cross-sector partnership would inevitably be better off working for the prestigious partnership by having an (infrequent) income, a careful inquiry should be engaged into how the project could potentially empower these young women (and their children) in non-financial ways and in the long-term perspective (fx. education, professional training, health provision, etc).
We argue that when considering the potential of cross-sector partnerships, it is crucial that outcomes are not conflated with impact, that it is acknowledged that resources, be they money or skills, do not necessarily transform the lives of the poor and marginalized.
This research calls for organizations, businesses and governments partaking in SDG 17 through cross-sector partnerships to engage in much more, and deeper consideration for the beneficiaries if they want to provide something more meaningful than the usual ‘North benefitting from inexpensive labor in the South’.
Anne Vestergaard is Associate Professor at Center for Corporate Social Responsibility at Copenhagen Business School. Her research revolves around mainstream discourses of morality with a particular interest in how processes of institutional, technological and semiotic mediation contribute to them.
Luisa Murphy is a PhD Fellow in corporate sustainability at Copenhagen Business School. Her research examines multi-stakeholder initiatives, anti-corruption and human rights.
Mette Morsing is Chair of Sustainable Markets and Executive Director of Misum at Stockholm School of Economics and Professor of CSR and Organization Theory at CBS. Her research focuses on how identity is governed in the interplay of internal and external stakeholders, in particular in the context of CSR and sustainability.
Thilde Langevang is Associate Professor at Centre for Business and Development Studies at Copenhagen Business School. Her research interests are in the area of entrepreneurship and development studies with a particular focus on youth, women, and creative industries in Africa.