It used to be a whisper, perhaps a low murmur. When businesses were to voice their concerns about the lack of proper governance, they rarely did so with enthusiasm or power. If they said anything at all.
“About 15-20 years ago, the usual response from businesses to questions regarding transparency, integrity and wellfunctioning institutions was: ‘Well, you know, this is political. It’s not our business’,” says Huguette Labelle with a rather convincing imitation of a business leader trying to avoid uncomfortable questions.
However, as the Chair of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International from 2005 to 2014, she has at first-hand seen businesses raising their voices in these matters. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, she saw how it made people more aware of the dangers of short-termism in both business and politics. In 2011, she was invited to be the Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Davos meeting and witnessed how a general consensus developed on the need for more responsible capitalism. And from her position on the board of the UN Global Compact, she has seen how the leading businesses have engaged in the process of defining and promoting the new set of targets for international development, the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Corporations are today recognizing and speaking out louder about the importance of good governance and of having transparency, integrity and well-functioning institutions in governments around the world. That’s important,” she says.
But they are not alone. Civil society organizations have also developed and refined the way they work. Today, NGOs have in many cases also earned a place at the table when policies are being shaped in both governments and businesses.
“Many NGOs are now able to navigate between expressing what they see as major problems in society, whether it be in governments or within the business sector, and simultaneously engaging in providing constructive solutions and being at the table in order to debate these issues,” says Labelle.
This is not an easy road to travel. Not for NGOs and not for businesses. But together the two parties have learned to meet and negotiate solutions with governments.
“Businesses and NGOs were not used to being consulted at the same discussion tables and were not comfortable with this. This has changed significantly. Now we frequently see NGOs and leaders of industry working together to make representations to governments and we have NGOs, governments and businesses working together to solve the major issues of our time. This is of great importance,” she says.
Labelle witnessed and indeed initiated this process when she as a Deputy Minister in the Canadian Government convened businesses, NGOs and the academic sector to all join at the same table for consultations on the work of the Canadian International Development Agency. This was the 90’s and the practice was to have bilateral consultations with each group separately.
“The first reaction was: ‘we don’t talk to each other, we don’t have the same views’, but I asked them to try, and very quickly they realized that they cared about the same problems. Their issues of importance were the same. They might have had different views on how to fix them, but it was a good discussion and when they left they all said: ‘when’s our next meeting?’,” Labelle explains.
Since then, she has witnessed this process several times. When stakeholders have the chance to talk and try to solve problems side-by-side, they develop solutions. “They realize that we all care about some of the major issues in our world,” she says, while carefully pointing out that she is not criticizing NGOs that focus on identifying problems. “They do a good job too. Different NGOs have different roles.”
As do different companies. Engaging in global discussions on governance is not something she would expect of all companies – far from it.
“I’m not suggesting that every mom-and-pop company has the energy, capacity or interest. However, I think it’s a welcome development that some of the large corporations now have leaders who are at ease with going beyond the old paths and
joining with civil society in speaking to governments on issues of transparency, integrity and governance,” she says.
LOCAL INFLUENCE GOING GLOBAL
The local Global Compact networks are in many ways well positioned to spearhead the work on transparency, integrity and governance. Being closer to national governments, they have the opportunity to develop policies and guidelines that
also work internationally.
“The Indian network has done a tremendous job of illuminating the business case for anti-corruption and added case studies on procurement, whistleblowing, compliance and how to prevent, detect and respond to corruption. We can use this,
not just in India but in other parts of the world as well through the local networks,” says Huguette Labelle.