Called out: civil society and agribusiness


Towards the end of last year I was having lunch with an old friend in the sugar business when the subject turned to NGOs – Non-Government Organisations – and NFPs – Not-For-Profits. He told me that his daughter worked for a leading international development agency as a specialist in island economies. She had under-spent her budget allocation for the year and her boss was afraid that they would lose it the following year. So he told her to spend it.

Taken aback by the short notice, all she could do was to organize a “fact-finding” mission where she and her colleagues flew out to an island in the Pacific for what was basically a vacation.

I thought of that this week when Oxfam, a leading UK charity, came under fire for alleged malpractice in at least three countries. The British right-wing press jumped on the story, arguing that the UK taxpayer money that helped fund the charity would have been better spent at home.

This media attention is unusual. NGOs (more widely known as “civil society”) are usually considered to be “untouchable”. As my friend had put it at lunch, civil society can criticize businesses and governments, but it is “politically-incorrect” to criticize civil society.

Back in 2013 Oxfam published a damning report—Sugar Rush—on land grabs and human rights abuses in the sugar sector. The report made the headlines at the time and added to prevailing anti-sugar-industry sentiment.

My sugar business friend had been particularly upset by the report. At the time I remembered that he had called it “unfair, ill informed and biased”.

I called him up, expecting him to be pleased that the tables had been turned, and that it was now Oxfam that was under the spotlight. I found him more upset than pleased. He told me that he had been a long-time donator to Oxfam, and he was angry that a small group of employees had so severely damaged the charity’s reputation. “They do great work”, he said. “They need public support to continue that work”.

I reminded him of the Sugar Rush report and his reaction to it. He brushed my comments aside, arguing that everyone needs to be “called out” when they do something wrong, and that “it is charities like Oxfam that keep businesses honest and governments on their toes. They do us a service, not a disservice.”

“So you shouldn’t be upset when Oxfam gets called out for doing something wrong,” I argued. “Someone needs to keep the charities honest,” I added. He reluctantly agreed, and then changed the subject.

After I had hung up, I thought over what he had said. Civil society does have an important—maybe essential—role in “naming and shaming” businesses and sectors that behave badly. Civil society draws bad behaviour to the attention of consumers, leading to consumer boycotts and lost revenues. Civil society acts as the local police force in the business environment, and NGOs are particularly active in the world of agriculture. No one enjoys being criticized, but criticism can and does lead to positive change.

I decided that Oxfam, as well as other charities, should respond positively and constructively to criticism, and to learn from it. And now that criticism of civil society is apparently no longer “politically incorrect”, NGOs will have to get used to it. They must follow the example of business, particularly agricultural business, and improve the way they run themselves.

But I wasn’t happy with that conclusion, so I called my friend back and reminded him again that he had called the Sugar Rush report “unfair, ill informed and biased”.

“Yes I did,” he admitted, “and looking back we should have engaged with Oxfam on it at the time. But I have moved on. I realise now that if the Sugar Rush report was ill informed it was mainly our fault. We should have done a better job at engaging with civil society and our stakeholders to explain what we do, how we do it, and the constraints under which we operate.”

“And are you doing that now?” I asked.

“Not nearly enough. We need to explain that markets are not perfect. No one is perfect, and our sector has to continue to improve what it does in terms of health, human rights and the environment.

“We know that, and we are now working in partnership with the bigger NGOs to make this change happen. Civil society is our ally in this, not our enemy. That’s why I am saddened by this week’s news stories about Oxfam. We need strong allies, not weak ones. And we need civil society to maintain their moral authority in order to promote change.”

Leave a Reply