May 202011
At last, a response from CI to the Don’t Panic sting. It’s here, in the Huffington Post, in case you missed it (as I had). 

I find it troubling. There is no suggestion that there was some breach of CI procedures or protocol. There is no answer on whether discussing PR plans to help neutralise cluster bomb civilian casualties was either morally sound or wise, whether being taped or not. There is no explanation as to what the due diligence and ethical processes in choosing corporate partners are. There is no pledge to review the organisation’s practices. No word on whether the employee has been spoken to.

It actually reads like the sort of meek response that laggard companies offer when accused of wrongdoing. To my knowledge, no one at all has said NGOs shouldn’t work in partnership with corporations. They’ve been doing so for decades. No one has claimed that business isn’t a large part of the answer to some of the world’s most pressing problems. And no one has said that no NGO should ever take money from a company (even though some choose not to). 

The fact is (and of course the ‘sting’ was selectively edited, just as presumably Conservation International’s response was carefully edited) that we heard a CI executive pricing up membership of a CI business forum on the basis it would show  ‘leadership’ by an arms firm. We heard an absurd attempt to link the company’s aviation interests with a possible partnership on endangered birds of prey. We heard about how PR support would be costed into any proposal. Selectively edited or not, these things were all said. 

The fact that Don’t Panic were using fake identities isn’t really the point. Indeed, that’s what makes it so troubling – that CI thought it was dealing with a real situation. 

If a company responded to allegations in this manner, it would be accused of dodging the issues. If it failed to set out a series of remedial actions, campaigning against it would continue until it had (ask McDonalds, Kimberly Clark, Nestle et al). You don’t have to take corporate money to be an effective change agent for business (Greenpeace is more effective than most at influencing commercial practices – again, ask the companies I mention). All three are now far down the path of implementing progressive, ambitious and game-changing policies on areas where campaigners held them to account. They are deservedly winning praise from their erstwhile critics as they do so. 

Similarly there are countless NGOs who work effectively with business where there is a financial relationship. Companies like M&S, WalMart, Unilever, Nike, Timberland and Kraft would not have made the strides they have in recent years without supporting organisations who can advance their mission to better business practices. But they tend not to sign cheques to join talking shops that make little difference. They lead from the front. 

I didn’t feel any of these nuances came across in the CI response. It is a blunt, arrogant reply that sidesteps a debate in which they are now deeply embroiled. This was an opportunity to engage in that debate, and show a little humility and contrition, promising such a ghastly episode will not happen again on the current leadership’s watch. That is, after all, what would be asked of a corporation by any conservation group worth its salt. In my opinion, the whole episode and its response are an inevitable consequence of an organisation now so large that it has forgotten its core purpose. Which is bad news for conservation, as the dollars raised and spent could achieve so much more. 

  One Response to “Conservation International fights back. Sort of…”

  1. Great piece. Reminds me of my Oxfam days. Loved (and love) many things about Oxfam – one thing that stood out was the clear lines on when, how etc to engage and partner with companies.

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