Monday, 1 March 2010

NGO Terrorism

NGOs find companies as soft targets for bullying. Companies, who are incredibly image conscious can easily be bullied – so catch hold of a company, drum up enormous publicity and companies have no choice, but to fall in line with whatever aim that particular NGO is propagating.

Let me state up front – I have no quarrel with many of the objectives that most NGOs are propagating. Some are loony, but most are very laudable. Many NGOs are highly motivated, care genuinely about their cause and altogether want to make the world a better place.

But NGOs have fallen prey to the classic trap of the end justifying the means. The causes that they propagate, relate to public policy. The correct way, in a democracy, is to take these to the voters, convince them of the merits of the policy, get elected to parliament and then pass legislation to that effect. That’s of course inconveniently long and painful and often fails to get voter endorsement. Therefore the quicker, easier (and wrong) way is to bully the soft targets – the corporates.

This post is prompted by the news that Caterpillar finally bowed down to the New York-based pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and announced that its foreign affiliates would suspend sales to Iran. Now American companies are already debarred from operating or selling to Iran, by US law. That’s why you cannot have Windows or MS office in Iran. It also applies to subsidiaries of US based companies. But it does not, and cannot, apply to foreign companies or companies which are not subsidiaries of the US company (much as US Congressmen like to think otherwise, the laws of the United States stop at the boundaries of that country).

UANI has also successfully bullied Siemens, Munich Re and Allianz to "boycott” Iran. There is currently no law in Germany to this effect so UANI has been “naming and shaming” to force companies to do its bidding.

This is a blatantly political issue. We may have our own private views on a nuclear Iran, but its certainly not the lot of companies to take positions on such a matter. This is for governments, parliaments and the United Nations. Companies have no business meddling in political affairs.

Corporates should follow the law of the land. Period. They are not instruments of public policy. The press, and NGOs, have every right to expose companies that violate the law. They have every right to name and shame law breakers. But they have no right to force their own point of view and achieve policy change by bullying companies.

The UANI should really be going to every major government and campaigning them to pass laws to prevent trade with Iran. Sure, that’s fiendishly difficult. But then that’s the route that is legal, ethical and moral. Forcing somebody to do something that he’s not required to do by law is simply immoral.

"The end justifies the means”, is the normal mantra of a terrorist. Do NGOs want to be bracketed with that lot ??

12 comments:

  1. Very thought provoking post. But what is the solution?
    How do companies withstand this pressure?

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  2. @Preeti - Companies succumb to the pressure. They have no choice - its a no win game. The strategy in companies is now to duck under the radar screen of NGOs as much as possible and if caught in the spotlight, just do what they want immediately.

    There is a public perception that any organisation that does things for profit is bad (companies) and any that does not do it for profit is good (NGOs). This is an extremely dangerous assumption. There are the good and bad NGOs. In general, if NGOs were to be judged for governance, transparency, accounts, etc, a larger proportion would fail to meet standards than in companies.

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  3. NGo lam not good org aaidichi solla vareenga...neenga sonna kareet thaan thalaivary

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  4. Being a no business brain, a slightly off business comment.

    Profit is more tangible and measurable one and hence every time one can objectively reset the bar. But in the case of the NGOs, the objectives are far more abstract and hence, the energy and Passion is what drives it.

    NGOs are by defintion, expected to be this way - little less objective, little more haphazard, unorganized and loud. But the fact they are positive power to reckon.

    My take on this is that it is definitely represents the maturity of a nation if an NGO can make such a big impact. If an NGO however is pushing something which challenges the very premise of the politically promised business model in that nation (as it is in this case put across in your post), then the corporate has to resort to legal objection.

    In all other cases, NGOs should be ideally allowed to chase what they are passionate about as they are best left that way.

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  5. @gils - No, I'm not painting a broad brush and saying NGOs are not good. Not at all. Its just that the public perception that if you are a NGO then you must automatically be very noble is quite wrong.Its is precisely because of this perception, not subjected to the usual checks and balances and the usual fault of a highly committed and motivated team (that everybody who doesn't follow their line is an idiot) that many of them resort to very questionable tactics.

    @Sandhya - Passion & Energy, Yes. Postive power - Oh surely. But they must be subjected to the same expectations of behaviour that everybody else is. When they do right, they must be lauded. When they do wrong, they must be pilloried.

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  6. What you meant here is 'extremely activist NGOs'. Greenpeace for example. They have been pushing for good causes and some, not so (depends on different points of view). Has any corporate called the NGOs' bluff on any accusations? Nope, at least to my knowledge. I'd rather consider these folks to be a kind of watch-keepers/whistleblowers. Not that Japan hasn't stopped whaling because Greenpeace shouts hoarse everytime their boats get to sail. The corporates always could say, 'we don't agree' and move away.

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  7. @RamMmm - Yes, I meant the very activist NGOs. They have a very important role to play as whistleblowers - completely agree. In the Japanese whaling example - they should very much yell when international treaties on whaling are breached. But if they want to force complete ban for example, they have to go to UN, go to the world bodies, or through governments and change policy - not go an harass whalers who break no law. This is my point - they pick the wrong targets to get their views publicity.

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  8. I am not sure that I would lay the blame so squarely on the NGOs. As long as the corporations are following the law of the land, they should be able to counter these NGO. What are their public/investor relations folks doing? I would lay the blame entirely on the senior management. Do they have the right to forgo profits for their investors because they are afraid of the NGOs. The other possibility is that they have bought into the ideals of the NGOs and forget that their job is to run the business and not have a political agenda. Ideally companies should put such issues up for a shareholder vote. Everything need not be about maximizing profit especially if something feels wrong even though it may be legal. Forget the specific political issue here, many time these NGOs also pursue social issues and then we laud the corporations for doing the socially correct thing. Who are we to say which objectives are worthy or not and the line between political and social issues are often blurred. So I think it is okay for companies to be conscious of such external pressures and respond to them if that's what their investors would want (easier said than done, I agree).

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  9. I think that the whole purpose of creating an NGO should only revolve around pubic welfare and should not have any ulterior motives related to an extremist's political agenda, as you rightly say. As long as an NGO engages to support upliftment of the mass and does not take illegal route, it should be ok. Supporting child education is one thing and bullying a book publishing company to only publish child books is another thing. I think the motive is vital in this case and NGO should act humble in their acts.

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  10. This is really bizarre! Firstly, I find political NGOs a bit too difficult to digest as far as their purpose of existence is concerned. Secondly, allowing such organizations to arm-twist business houses is like giving a dangerous toy in the hands of an infant. Thirdly, a more meaningful NGO would have tried to bridge the gap between the westeners and the Islamic world (now thats a difficult task, isn't it?). Fourthly, Iran is not another Iraq to treat it like that. There is only one big problem there- their President.

    What purpose is this NGO solving by alienating Iran? The various economic sanctions are already doing it. A more meaningful political NGO would have worked to bring more political awareness in the Iranian citizens.

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  11. @J - No quarrels with NGOs who publish their views and try and convince people to follow whatever they are espousing. The voluble NGOs today do not have that patience. They protest, agitate, create bad publicity for companies and no amount of PR from companies can defend against that - the public's instinctive image of a company is evil and an NGO holy. Against that, PR cannot win. Take the case of the appalling behaviour of Greenpeace with Shell on the Brent Spar in the mid 90s.

    Great idea for companies to put all such stuff to shareholder vote.

    @Vishal - Even if the agenda is a social one my argument stands. The action should be to influence public opinion, change legislation, etc - not bully companies or individuals.

    @Deepa - Political NGOs have a place - in the government and policy making arena. For example the expose of the appalling atrocities in Congo was a very laudable achievement. In this case, they may or may not be wrong, but clearly they should be influencing governments and the UN - not forcing companies.

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  12. True Ramesh. There is only a thin line between activism and one that has been hijacked.

    On your comment on influencing the govts or the UN, the NGOs do not come into their scope of visibility for policy decisions at all, with very few exceptions. The NGOs scope remains largely local. Activism gets it more visibility to the governments which may/may not act on it.

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