Civil society concerns as global partnerships meeting ends in Mexico

Panelists at the private sector plenary session at the Global Partnership for Effective Development cooperation, including U.K. Secretary for International Development Justine Greening, address the role of the private sector in development and answer questions on many of the top critiques of partnering with companies. Photo by: Florence de Vesvrotte / Action Aid

Masked civil society representatives took the stage briefly on Wednesday at the closing plenary of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation’s first high-level meeting, which focused on the role of the private sector in development.

The event didn’t foster the kind of cross-sectoral discussion its organizers had promised, the activists lamented; there could have been more of a focus on accountability.

Interestingly, on the fringes of last September’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, corporate leaders similarly complained a lack of organized channels through which the private sector could impact multilateral decision-making, including on the global development goals that are to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire next year.

“It’s actually quite tense,” Florence de Vesvrotte, parliamentary advisor for Action Aid, told Devex from the event in Mexico City, “because the key theme of this partnership is inclusive partnership … And there is a general feeling that there isn’t really an inclusive partnership.”

Business, civil society and government representatives often participated in separate tracks, fostering perhaps less interaction that there could have been, she suggested.

The meeting resulted in a communique outlining the need for more effective development cooperation and for including that in the post-2015 global development agenda. Some 38 new initiatives were announced by governments officials, business leaders, private foundations and civil society representatives. Those announcements included an initiative led by Germany, the World Bank and the OECD to measure aid flows into tax administrations, a commitment by the U.K. government to explore development impact bonds and start a 1.5 million pound development impact bond to combat sleeping sickness in Uganda, and the launch of a new partnership road map.

Unlike 2011 in Busan, where negotiators signed off on clear targets, the Mexico City communique outlines suggestions, perhaps reinforcing the view of some participants that the meeting was more about talk than action.

On Wednesday, the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness called on all GPEDC participants to make more ambitious pledges, citing slow progress on commitments made in Busan. Requests from civil society were left out of the meeting’s communique, the advocates claimed, and the document ultimately lacked concrete mechanisms to guarantee an enabling environment for civil society. Partnerships with the private sector should incorporate more guarantees for accountability and transparency.

Some of these concerns were addressed in the private sector plenary.

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, who opened the panel, called on participants to move beyond thinking about partnering with business as “nice” to have, -and instead see it as a must-have.

“The Global Partnership is about working together to share best practice and identify new ways to address challenges,” she said. “We know ODA funding on it’s own won’t be enough to achieve eradication of poverty … so we have to involve private sector development.”

The aid community should help business engage more strategically, effectively and consistently in global development, said Greening, one of the GPEDC meeting’s co-chairs. Her hope, she said, was that the meeting would encourage not just increased communication and partnership between business and government, but also civil society.

Civil society has long played a critical role in monitoring and pointing out bad practice, and it should continue to do that, Greening said. What it could also do is track best practices and hold up examples of success.

Several common critiques of private sector engagement in development were raised, including its interest in making money and accessing new markets, and concerns that money going toward private sector engagement could not be used for key services like health and education.

Greening responded that the development community has an opportunity to shape private sector investments, which will happen anyway, to maximize development impacts.

Betty Maina, CEO of the Kenyan Manufacturers Association and a member of the United Nations secretary-general’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, said that governments can choose to solely focus on social services but that she strongly suggests they also focus on creating an environment for economic growth.

“The best way to eradicate poverty is to create opportunities for livelihoods,” she said, adding that creating an environment that allows for small business growth and ensures the rule of law is critical in creating jobs and ending poverty.  

In response to concerns raised by entrepreneurs from Pakistan and Bhutan speaking at the plenary, panelists agreed on the need to improve the business environment, focusing on local businesses and not just multinational corporations.

Peter McAllister, the director of the Ethical Trading Initiative and a self-described skeptic, said that business will be present where it can make money and the development community must understand and accept that. It is the job of government and civil society to ensure, through partnership, that there are appropriate checks and balances, local businesses benefit and that good jobs are created, he said.

McAllister said that he was inspired by the meetings and has seen examples of where partnerships and private sector participation can work, which is critical in building support and bringing along other skeptics.  

During the plenary, an Action Aid representative asked whether it was time businesses adhered to the Busan principles, as civil society has agreed to do. Panelists agreed on a need for greater accountability.

Greening said it can “no longer be in the too difficult box” and others echoed the sentiment, calling for greater transparency in business and development, and for streamlining ways to evaluate business.

“It is is still all up in the air as there aren’t any commitments,” de Vesvrotte said. “These are all words, we must hope that it will soon translate to concrete actions to partner for change for people of the countries and not our own private sector.”

When Greening opened the plenary on the heels of the masked activists, she addressed the need to build consensus and change attitudes — something that she said can only be done by sitting in the same room, talking, listening and gaining a better understanding. While not everyone in Mexico City may have felt fully included, the discussions here offered plenty opportunities to make a difference.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.