NGO Strategies for Promoting Corporate Social Responsibility

By Winston, Morton | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2002 | Go to article overview

NGO Strategies for Promoting Corporate Social Responsibility


Winston, Morton, Ethics & International Affairs


The current era of corporate globalization has not altered the fundamental nature of the struggle for human rights, but it has shifted its context and created new opportunities and challenges for the global human rights movement. Since the early 1990s this movement, which used to focus exclusively on the policies and practices of nation-states, has begun examining the role of multinational corporations and international financial institutions in the protection and promotion of human rights.

This article describes and evaluates the different strategies that have been employed by human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in attempting to influence the behavior of multinational corporations (MNCs). Within the NGO world, there is a basic divide on tactics for dealing with corporations: Engagers try to draw corporations into dialogue in order to persuade them by means of ethical and prudential arguments to adopt voluntary codes of conduct, while confronters believe that corporations will act only when their financial interests are threatened, and therefore take a more adversarial stance toward them. The latter approach is more in line with traditional labor union strategies and tactics, and in fact is often motivated by a desire to maintain solidarity with union partners. Confrontational NGOs tend to employ moral stigmatization, or "naming and shaming," as their primary tactic, while NGOs that favor engagement offer dialogue and limited forms of cooperation with willing MNCs.

THE NEW FOCUS ON MNCs

At least five factors have contributed to human rights NGOs' interest in the business sector:

* a perceived shift of power from nation-states to MNCs and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund;

* the lack of social and environmental accountability of MNCs under existing national and international laws;

* the growing anti-corporate-globalization movement;

* a conclusion on the part of large, international human rights organizations that they have been too focused on traditional categories of civil and political rights while neglecting economic, social, and cultural rights; and

* a desire on the part of some people in the NGO world to enlist MNCs and business executives as allies and as potential levers for promoting human rights globally.

Undoubtedly the most important factor is the perception that political and economic power has shifted away from governments and toward corporations, in particular MNCs. In the developed industrial nations of the North, mainly the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, state and national governments are often seen as doing the bidding of their major corporations. Increasingly, they resemble plutocracies in which corporations control the political agenda while also dominating the marketplace. In the South, large Northern-based MNCs often have more economic power than governments, and nominally democratic crony-capitalist oligarchies continue to control access to most of the valuable natural resources while maintaining power over impoverished populations by force.

Within NGOs, there is a widely held view that multinational corporations, already the dominant institutions in contemporary society, are increasing their influence over the economic, political, and cultural life of humanity while remaining almost completely unaccountable to global civil society. The boards and chief executives who control MNCs are not democratically elected, and their deliberations are not transparent. If they feel accountable to anyone, it is to market analysts and investors who, for the most part, wish simply to make a quick profit.

MNCs play an influential role in major international financial and trade organizations. One of the most significant events of the past decade was the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. …

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