Although both the business sector and civil society are actors that form a private initiative (i.e. not governmental) to advance their own agendas, they can be seen as opposites: business looks for profit, while civil society is not for profit and mainly focused on social goals. What has my experience been in bridging these two actors? Let me tell you.
Besides their approach to profit and the different nature of their goals, relations between the business sector and the civil society sector are bittersweet in Latin America. As Latin American countries reach higher levels of development, we have seen that international organisations are lowering their contributions to NGOs in the region. Instead, major donors are focusing their spending on other regions (mainly Africa) and on specific global/regional trends (climate change, war in Ukraine, etc.). For some years now, the business sector has become a more important source of funding as it fills the gap left by international organisations.
But, at the same time, especially the regional human rights movement has not had a particularly positive relationship with enterprises as some of them have been involved in human right violations and abuse, especially those related to mining and energy. In very specific national cases, multinational corporations have been proven to support paramilitary groups and to finance violent actions, especially against labour unions and social movements.
As Latin America is the most dangerous place on earth to be a land and environment activist, it is easy to see why both sectors regard each other with distrust. To exaggerate wildly, some social actors consider enterprises to be greedy and heartless, while many companies perceive us to be complainers, lazy and troublemakers. This is why in 2017, when we were collecting the list of candidates for the election of my organisation’s president, I did not understand why a businessman was applying. What the heck could he know about civil society?, I thought. Well, five years later, I understand that I was wrong and we both have learned a lot by working together (I am the executive director of the organisation).
The current General Coordinator (president) of the Redlad is called Enrique de Obarrio, he is from Panama and his professional career has led him to be part of the Government of his country, the business and the social sector. Enrique, therefore, knows better than anyone the need to build bridges of cooperation between different sectors. From the beginning of his mandate, Enrique has insisted that the organisation should strive for rapprochement with the private sector of the continent but that process has not been easy.
At the beginning of 2021, in the midst of preparations for the Summit of the Americas and also in response to an analysis that pointed to the urgent need to find solutions to global problems through agreements between different actors, we finally managed to get closer to some relevant actors from the private sector. First, through an exercise to build a common minimum health agenda between Redlad and the leaders of the Americas Health Coalition (AHC), a group of companies from the United States, that were part of the Inter American Development Bank (IADB) working group about health. Later with close dialogues on various issues such as corruption. Mutual distrust, then, makes the encounter dry and fearful from the beginning.