My inherent cynicism isn’t without evidence: there is an endless list of corporate wrongdoing in the developing world. The private sector has different incentives from the public or NGO sector and markets don’t necessarily reward good behaviour. Indeed, quite often, at least in the short-term, they offer the strongest incentives for those who can find ways to cut standards and lower costs, exploiting anyone and everything in their wake.
But nonetheless, I still think its time to get beyond the rhetoric. The arguments have hardly changed in fifteen years, and, quite frankly, I’m bored. The lines are pitched as an argument between the pragmatists and the idealists: those who partner with the private sector, and those who campaign against them. On the one side, you get Care’s partnership with Cargill, or Wateraid’s partnership with Diageo. For this camp, collaborating with the private sector is perceived as necessary and inevitable. Governments have failed people, they might say, and NGOs can’t deliver to scale. Putting a private-sector lens to the challenge of development has brought innovation and the newly worn phrase “disruption” to a tired industry.
For others, however – let’s call them the idealists – private sector-led development removes people’s rights and individual freedoms, while further embedding corporate control of everything. For this camp, NGOs who partner with the private sector have undermined our mutual, long-term cause.
The pragmatists are certainly more in favour with the government of the day. The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID)’s new minister, Priti Patel, the former tobacco lobbyist who once wanted to axe the entire department, will continue the priorities already set by her predecessor. Private-sector led development will be her calling card, and collaborations between NGOs and the private sector will be at an even greater premium. Any NGO wanting a future funding relationship with DfID will be expected to tow the line. They were already giving roughly a third of their budget away to the private sector or private sector partnerships with NGOs. This could easily rise.
The idealist in me is concerned. Development agendas centred around rights and freedoms have been taking a back seat to the business of economic development – the pragmatists seem to have won. DfID’s statement of purpose says, among other things:“we’re ending the need for aid by creating jobs” as if development were just a matter of employment.
So who is right? The pragmatists or the idealists? Are those who eschew private-sector partnerships just ideologues, blind to modern realities? Or has the NGO sector really sold out to the highest bidder, throwing their ideals out the window?
It’s worth pointing out that in roughly the same period as we’ve seen a rise of private-sector led development, we’ve also seen some worrying trends: rising levels of inequality over the past 15 years, more insecure work, environmental degradation and tax evasion on a massive scale. NGOs who enter into partnerships are clearly not to blame for these outcomes, but should we be asking: have they aided and abetted their rise, concentrating power into the hands of the wealthy?
Frustratingly, it’s not that simple. Moral clarity makes campaigning easier, but as Duncan Green pointed out to me recently: NGOs, even more radical ones, spend a lot more time working with the private sector than they care to admit. “Small farmers and SMEs or cooperatives are as important a part of the private sector – if not more so – than big irrelevant corporations,” he said. We need to reframe this debate, he argued: it’s not about private v public, but about size, scale, and form.
The crux of the matter is the relevant role of NGOs. A DfID model sees NGOs as just one vehicle to deliver economic growth, to help raise standards in the private sector or to provide some basic services to the poor. Where NGOs sing, however, is in their ability to challenge unfair structures, not to pander to them. Can NGOs really be both partner, and provocateur? Instead of bringing influence and innovation, have relationships with the private sector rendered NGOs role as advocate, watchdog and change agent, marginalised and ineffective?
Sunita Narain, the chief executive of India’s Centre for Science and the Environment, speaking recently at the Institute of Development Studies’ 50th anniversary conference, said that many in development believe that over the past period, we’ve empowered society through the growth of the market. Instead, she asked us provocatively: “Which society? The poor or the rich?”
If private sector-led development, and the partnerships it brings, can be about genuine power shifts, then I would shout from the rooftops. But for now, that small, cooperative private sector that Green refers to is hidden in the shadows, lacking power and toothless. Most NGOs will continue to take big corporate cash, while holding their critical tongues of dissent. All private sector development is certainly not bad – but the type of private-sector led development, I fear, that Patel foresees, is far from this type of genuine shift.