Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Stakeholder rhetoric: ignoring the private sector

A mindset shift is needed to ensure greater engagement by authorities with the private sector in tackling some of Africa's most pressing public interest issues.

One standard criticism of corporate responsibility initiatives is that they only give superficial lip-service to their promise to engage a variety of other stakeholders.

However, this failure to match rhetoric with reality applies in a different and contrary direction: governments and their multilateral bodies dealing with major developmental, governance and security issues often speak of 'engaging all stakeholders' -- only to then ignore the private sector.

This post comes from Rome, where I'm part of a high-level EU meeting considering strategies to respond to organised crime and drug trafficking along the 'Cocaine Route' from Latin America to Europe -- via West Africa and the Sahel-Sahara.

A background paper for the event makes some mention of engaging a "diverse group of stakeholders", but only mentions the private sector at one point in relation to "advocacy strategies" to create a groundswell against organised crime and corruption.

I find it extraordinary that the invitation list for such an event includes no-one from chambers of commerce in key port cities, port and airport logistic firms, banks and others interested in preventing money-laundering, and so on. It is all diplomats and cops -- although some civil society groups are represented, businesspeople and their umbrella groups are not.

Of course, if you define 'multinational private sector' broadly enough, transnational organised crime is par excellence a multinational business activity. It is an illicit one, but large-scale illicit activity is difficult to sustain without passing, at some point, through the licit economy (if only to launder the proceeds of crime). Speaker after speaker here in Rome has highlighted drug traffickers' remarkable innovation and capacity to respond: yet one licit source of resources, capacity and interest (the private sector) is again overlooked as a relevant 'stakeholder' in promoting less corrupt, more crime-free growth and development in Africa.

Innovation in public policy extends to re-thinking who may count as partners or can in some way be co-opted.

This sort of innovation is generally lacking. My doctoral work examined how authorities engaged in post-conflict recovery have tended to ignore the scope for engaging the private sector's capacity to contribute to building peace. From Sudan to Solomon Islands, the problem I found was either authorities' undue ambivalence about engaging the private sector, or ignorance of the potential contributions of businesspeople to achieving public goals.

This sort of mindset leads to the anomaly that one can attend a major conference on international supply chains in drugs without any attendee from the private sector: banks, airlines, ports authorities, shipping firms (and all their insurers -- a node for regulatory influence).

All the 'holistic -- multi-stakeholder' rhetoric rings hollow in such a context.


See a related previous post, here.

A link to the background paper is here.

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