Dialogue With ‘Opposite’ Actors: Business Sector




Civil Society, Gender Equality, Human Rights and Migration

By Gina Romero

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.
However, the urgent need to address the profound crisis in the health systems that was revealed by the pandemic gave us the push that both sides needed. I lost count of the number of hours we sat down to talk with our AHC colleagues, trying to understand each other and build a base agreement that would later become a common advocacy agenda. I must confess that with AHC, although they were long, the dialogues were always very respectful and productive: we both shared our views, included the examples needed to make the other understand the details of our positions and set clear boundaries among the four women who were involved in the whole process (two from each party). From our side, the hardest debates were those on indigenous issues (especially those related to the need to respect their ancestral knowledge and their own health and healing approaches) and intersectionality.
I remember that the first times we spoke with our civil society colleagues about this process of dialogue, there was total distrust; and yet, when we presented the first draft of the minimum agenda, there was a great surprise that common ground could be found. One of our colleagues told us: “I was surprised that there was so much common space for dialogue between such different actors involved”.
Once we had built the agenda, we had a dozen advocacy meetings with high level officials (Ambassadors, Organisation of American States Representatives, PAHO, US government officials, among others) and one high-level round-table meeting at the actual Summit of the Americas (June 2022, Los Angeles). Our main objective was to push LAC governments to adopt a mechanism that we called Americas RISE for Health 2030, a high-level annual public-private forum to achieve resilient, inclusive, sustainable, equitable health ecosystems for the region. Although the mechanism was adopted by the US Government as a commitment to push forward health advances in the continent, it was not adopted by the plenary of the governments on the continent, although many of them adopted issues that we included in our advocacy recommendations. So we neither won nor lost.
Turning to anti-corruption, the experience was less fruitful. We had just three meetings with the leaders of the IADB’s working group on digital transformation, and again we tried to establish a level of common ground. However, our counterpart insisted on using some examples from Guatemala as models of good practice. Just at that time, Guatemala was in the midst of a huge scandal due to corruption and closing of civil space. We also had just four sets of talks and were lacking a middle ground actor as a point of contact (we talked with a high-level official both times who had little time and strong goals) which did not allow us to advance as smoothly as with the AHC.
The door for new dialogues is now wide open and the process continues. We do not know when or where it will end, but we firmly believe that it is these processes of rapprochement that build real scenarios of full and radical democracy and join efforts of diplomacy 4.0.
About the author: 
Gina Romero is a social activist, social entrepreneur and expert in civic education, youth empowerment, integrity and anticorruption as well as democracy strengthening.

Published on August 10, 2022.

Photo Credit: Roberto Huczek

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