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Societal Partnerships: A Contested Terrain

N. Perlas, 04 December 2004

We often find civil society criticizing government or business for some dubious program or project. But increasingly, we are also finding civil society seriously considering the possibilities of creating tactical or even strategic partnerships with government and/or business.

Why the shift in attitude? There are a number of reasons.

First, civil society is beginning to realize that criticism alone, while often necessary and justified, cannot create a new world. They find their energies focused on the negative, and not the possible other worlds that they can construct or create.

Second, civil society activists are finding out that there are individuals, in business and government, who are equally passionate about creating other, more sustainable worlds. And they are finding out that these kinds of government officials and business executives are also increasingly viewing civil society not as bitter critics but as potential allies in the common search for better worlds.

Third, while appreciative of its strengths, civil society is also developing greater self-understanding of its inherent limitations. Civil society understands that the cultural power it wields, while the most powerful force in any society, is not sufficient to pass more enabling laws or to create new economic practices. They will need the genuine cooperation of government and business to bring about significant changes in the political and economic structures of a country or the world.

Fourth, a similar self-understanding of the limitations of political and economic power is increasingly surfacing in government and business respectively. Both now know that laws and markets are not enough to create a free, just and sustainable world. Government and business are also realizing that they need the different capacities and resources of civil society to truly create democratic and economically vibrant societies.

Given all these, there is increasing interest in civil society, government, and business for societal partnerships, sometimes called threefolding, tri-sectoral, or cross-sectoral partnerships. Especially because of this convergent interest, civil society needs to fully realize that it is entering into a social terrain that can rob civil society of its credibility and effectiveness. For societal partnerships can be both a blessing and curse, and thus a heavily contested terrain.

We already saw this at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Societal partnerships, or Type 2 partnership as it was called, became one of the most contentious issues of the Summit. We are now seeing it in the UN Global Compact, where civil society organizations are criticizing other civil society organizations for encouraging and supporting the “bluewash” by transnational corporations. And we saw this recently in the World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, attended by thousands. (See related story on this event in TruthForce!.)

What is the main concern? The main anxiety is that civil society will become unwitting tools for a new and more sophisticated form of branding by corporations as well as a new form of legitimizing questionable practices by government. This concern heightens especially in cases where civil society receives large amounts of funding from either government or business.

Unfortunately, there is no guide or rule-of-thumb for societal partnerships. A lot depends on context, the potential partners and decision makers involved, the issues, the perception of other civil society allies, and so on. What can be a potential possibility of success in one case can be a perfect scenario for co-optation and loss of credibility in another. Those involved have to weigh things very carefully before they jump in.

Despite these concerns, societal partnerships, including social threefolding initiatives, are emerging as a key social innovation in the 21st century. The solution of the giant problems facing humanity will require the coordinated and strategic involvement and resources of cultural, political, economic institutions of countries and the world. What stands in the way is ensuring that these societal partnerships are authentic and effective.

Removing barriers to strategic partnerships, in turn, can only signify the emergence of individuals with an expanded range of societal capacities. These capacities will enable them to discern whether to criticize or to engage, and, when critically engaging, they will be able to ensure that societal partnerships bring humanity to a truly free, dignified, democratic, equitable, prosperous and sustainable level of existence.

Editorials also appear on TruthForce!


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