Sunday, 9 March 2014

Responsible lobbying and responsive government

Will it irritate some readers to assert that serious business leaders are just as interested in inclusive, sustainable growth as responsible public officials?

I find the statement unsurprising. Even if there is still more rhetoric and hyperbole than anything else about public-private action on meeting development goals, in my view no-one has demonstrated why the policy risks of engaging the private sector in resolving development challenges outweigh the potential gains from appropriate collaboration.

And here I think the real question is not collaboration, or having conversations about collaboration. Again, those seem obvious. The real question is what constitutes 'appropriate' forms of both.

Later this post observes an example from my own research that bucks the prevailing view that policymakers talk (or listen) too much to corporate views. It shows that the problem in at least one development sphere is the opposite: they do not seek the views of business, an important stakeholder in peace and prosperity.

I will start again. This longer-than-normal post makes two points. First is the one just made: major social and developmental gains are surely possible where business and government find common ground and can agree (or share) respective roles. Second, realising these gains requires deliberative engagement, but the means by which business and government seek to influence each other matters.

Global business is not representative of all that is virtuous, yet I do not propose to dwell on the first issue. At some level it appears somewhat self-evident. Take the issues that routinely top the list when leading firms make macro-analyses and scenarios about long-term risk or opportunity. I am fairly confident they are also the same issues that do (or should) trouble responsible, future-minded policymakers: inequality and exclusion, insecurity and joblessness, resource scarcity and climatic uncertainty ...

On the assumption, then, that there is lots for business and government to talk about in maximising the developmental impact of core business strategies, and in formulating public policy that harnesses private sector strengths (and fosters responsible business practices), let's turn to the second issue: what is involved in talking?

Corporate lobbying and public-private forums and pathways to explore development synergies are not necessarily the same thing, although both do involve parties trying to steer things in some way.

It is true that not all corporate chiefs are leaders -- just as not all officials pursue the public interest. It is also true that only officials represent the populace, and we must remain aware that 'partnership' between public and private sectors does not imply equal levels of legitimate authority: private economic activity is a highly important sphere of human freedom, but it is after all a public world, the public's world.

But both groups matter for development, unless we believe that governments alone hold all the tools for ending poverty and all the keys to unlocking opportunity and potential. The evidence suggests otherwise. Both groups matter, so it matters that they talk about the things that matter to both.

For business and government to understand and respect each other, and uncover what are the areas and scope for these development / growth 'synergies' [sorry], they clearly need to talk, to 'find' each other. This takes time, and trust. Implicit in that is proximity, regular contact, dialogue. How is this closeness developed or sustained, without damaging the public's trust in the process? How do big business and government discuss common ground without either one distorting or misappropriating the ground itself? How do we convince officials not automatically to distrust corporate motives, or convince corporates that sitting with policymakers can enhance their long-term strategies, not just delay or constrain them? 

Thus this post returns to the topic that the last one ended on: how do we build appropriate forums or channels of communication and influence so that we have the benefits of legitimate and vital private sector perspectives on public policy relating to development, but without subverting broader public interests by basing policy (or its implementation) on the preferences and interests of a narrow class of players?

A recent Economist article (*) on the pervasive effect of corporate lobbying noted how US regulatory authorities devising the Dodd-Frank Act met far more often with banks than with community or consumer groups. Yet my forthcoming book on engaging business in post-conflict peacebuilding reveals an entirely opposite problem: policymakers do not talk with businesspeople about shared interests in peace and prosperity, and about what business can do to contribute (appropriately...) to these goals.

Thus from Haiti to Liberia to the Sudans, I found that peacebuilding authorities meet far more often with civil society groups (many one-person outfits) than with businesspeople. Indeed typically they ignore the private sector altogether, either never considering them 'stakeholders' in the first place, or actively avoiding encounters for fear of being 'tainted'.

I could go on (the book does...). The point is that the lack of a strategy to engage the private sector on issues of mutual interest manifests as a lack of policy frameworks (safe places, platforms, parameters) for these important conversations to take place.

So whereas most of the concern is that business is too influential, on some important development issues it is not being sounded-out nearly enough.

A few other thoughts, briefly:
* Debate on responsible lobbying neglects smaller businesses, which struggle to engage with policymaking in the region I follow, struggle to make their voice heard to governments. Yet they often hold far greater promise of job-creation and local empowerment than most major foreign investment projects. There is much scope for big foreign firms to sit with government and local chambers of commerce on building backward linkages into local economies.

* In many settings, business and officialdom are the same individuals, families. Development policy must arrive at suitable frameworks for principled engagement if it is to influence policies for inclusive growth in such settings as Angola.

* In many places the risk is not that business will 'capture' the state and its regulators by having closer dialogue, it is that the state either neglects business or is predatory and extortionate.

Note that April 2014 is the first high-level meeting of the OECD-DAC global (business-government) partnership for effective development cooperation: see here. See also TPI's roadmap document ahead of this forum, here.


See the Global Compact's guidelines on responsible corporate engagement in policy debates on the development issue of climate change.

* The Economist 22 Feb 2014, p. 14, discussed in the previous post.

See here for some previous posts on the private sector's role in development.

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