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Blog Post
24 April 2018

Bridge over troubled waters: How can we bury the hatchet between industry and civil society?

Photo by John Nelson, Kumacaya.

The production of everything from shirts to foods has an impact on people and the planet. In fact, palm oil, soy, beef and wood products alone are responsible for 70% of global deforestation. Clearly, sustainable business are urgently needed to solve the problems evoked by unsustainable production.

This is why, the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals include goal #12 on sustainable consumption and production. Implementation of this goal, among other things, implies that businesses build well-functioning monitoring to track their environmental impact, so they can achieve sustainable and efficient use of natural resources, reducing waste and pollution.

The idea to monitor resource extraction or cultivation that businesses do on the ground is not new. However, this monitoring has traditionally been performed by the companies themselves, which has raised a lot of concerns about the quality of such evaluations. Hence, there has been a continuous lack of trust and antagonism between businesses and non-profits and even between businesses within the same supply chain.

The main reason for this distrust is suspicion that the consultants who perform environmental and other monitoring for companies are biased and involved in the so-called “greenwashing”. Vice versa, when Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) raise concerns about unsustainable business practices, the private sector often meets it with low confidence and dismisses these concerns as political activism with little scientific backing.

In short, there have been very few opportunities for companies and civil society to come together on neutral grounds.

Hopefully, the vision set by the SDGs, can unite the parties. In fact, there is at least one promising approach to develop the interface for their interaction.

Photo by Rodrigue Kreilmann, Kumacaya.

It all starts with a word

Kumacaya – a name that stems from the Bambara word “Ka Kuma” (meaning “to talk”), and the Bahasa word “Percaya” (meaning “to trust”) is a brand new initiative by The Forest Trust (TFT). The goal is to improve non-biased monitoring and build trust between the commercial sector and CSO’s. We sat down with John Nelson, the leader of the initiative, and Charlotte Goubin, the manager of the programme, to dive into the details of Kumacaya.

“I remember when I was working for an NGO I couldn’t even get into a company’s office,” says John when explaining why there is a need to bridge this trust-gap. Kumacaya is rooted in the idea that local civil society organisations often have the best grasp of what is happening on the ground, and that companies should tap into this resource when investing in sustainability of their operations.

TFT has been investigating adverse environmental and social impact of commercial activities before, and has developed a remote sensing tool called Starling, to measure land use change and deforestation. The method has its strong points, but is generally better at observing change rather than explaining the reasons behind it.

So, what is new about the Kumacaya’s approach?

All projects begin by engaging companies and civil society in consultations on what kind of monitoring is needed, and where this should be done. According to Charlotte, the idea behind the engagement with local civil society is to get to know them and their expertise: “What are the main topics of interest right now in their area? What issues do they want companies to be aware of?” After these consultations, specific monitoring projects are developed, like, for instance deforestation in East Kalimantan. These are then matched with funds from investors, mostly companies.

When funding is secured, the projects are made public and civil society organizations are invited to apply for the funds with their own proposals on how to carry out the monitoring. The applications are anonymous, as are the companies investing in the projects: “There can be several actors funding the projects, from growers to brands, and the outcome of the monitoring will be accessible to all investors for that specific project, but the CSOs won’t know who they are, they only know that someone along the supply chain is requesting monitoring,” Charlotte explains.

Anonymity plays a central role in limiting bias and is a hallmark of the whole process. This condition ensures there is no pressure or tailoring of content, safeguarding the independence and validity of the monitoring.

Photo courtesy of Kumacaya.

The whistleblower facilitator

At present, Kumacaya is active in four countries: Brazil, Liberia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Their basic assumption is that direct involvement of the private sector, by financial investment and interest in the monitoring effort, will encourage companies to care for and act on results when they come in.

According to John, this approach can help remedy situations where international development donors are the ones paying for the monitoring: ”When a large donor funds local NGOs to monitor a palm oil company, they do really detailed research and hand it over to the company as a part of their campaign. In my view this is really a way for the company to say ‘Thank you, you’ve just given us 50 000 dollar worth of research for free’. The thing with Kumacaya is that the industry pays for it themselves; this way the industry is investing in civil society directly.”

A Kumacaya monitoring contract lasts for six months, during which there is a continuous exchange of information between Kumacaya and the selected CSO about the findings. Charlotte explains “The idea is not to have a report six months after the visit; it’s to have information right at the time when a problem is discovered.”

This could help catalyse change faster, since the companies will be aware of the problems directly, though it is worth noting that the flexibility of the monitoring differs a lot from baseline and continuity approaches of traditional evaluations. However, John and Charlotte don’t see this as a problem and explain that the main logic behind the monitoring projects is: problem reported – problem addressed – problem solved, meaning that there should be little reason to repeat the process in order to take up the mantle afterwards. This, in turn, reduces the need for baselines or other methods to compare results over time.

In this fashion, Kumacaya functions more like a whistleblower facilitator than a traditional evaluation or audit bureau. Instead, as John explains: “It’s really about empowering civil society and bridging the trust gap between the CSOs and companies and for them to say: ‘OK, we trust civil society to gather information on the ground, and we trust the information that comes up from the monitoring.” John points out that this makes Kumacaya cheaper and a faster facilitator of change.

Photo courtesy of Kumacaya.

A balancing act

Transparency and knowledge brings about opportunities for informed decision making process, directly involving different actors in the value chain. For the business, the data provided by the CSO through Kumacaya brings greater leverage when approaching suppliers and other actors within the same supply chain. Companies can say: “We have observed this problem within this supply chain, you’re a part of that supply chain too, what are you going to do about it?”

In turn, after the end of the monitoring period, CSOs can use the information they have collected as they please, providing a greater scope for accountability. Considering that the companies have invested in and received the findings, they can’t claim ignorance if the information is publicised. This means they have a greater incentive to act on it. Although CSOs can go public, the Kumacaya is set-up to prevent this from happening.

When it comes to communicating about success, the anonymity of Kumacaya can be a challenge, mainly because there is no external party to validate the findings, unlike it is in the case of certification schemes. At present, however, there is no immediate plan from Kumacaya to publicise any detailed findings from the projects. John Nelson explains: “Of course we want to be able to look back and see what we have done and the impact, but we also want to stick within our confidentiality rules. So, it’s a delicate balance, watch this space and you shall see what we come up with”.

There are different ways to approach the issue of knowledge sharing and value chain transparency, with different strengths and weaknesses. For example, SEI and the Global Canopy Programme have developed TRASE, a web-based tool for tracking agricultural production driving tropical deforestation, which allows the user to follow a commodity to its point of origin. There are also certification labels you can see on groceries that guide consumers towards sustainability while shopping.

With Kumacaya, the principle is centered around increasing the trust in the responsible companies, converting them into active agents of change. “The key thing is not about making the things transparent, because that’s just one part of the process, it’s about solving the problems,” John explains.

Photo by Rodrigue Kreilmann, Kumacaya.

High risk, high reward

When the concept of Kumacaya started to take off it was met with a lot of skepticism from both business and civil society: “Some of the companies frankly thought that we were crazy,” says John.

One can easily imagine that the more vocal advocacy groups will take some time to be persuaded – the voluntary nature of the commitments and statements about how companies have met their own targets is not far away from what critics would call “greenwashing”. From the business side there is also the need to prove that they are indeed getting value for money by investing in civil society. However, the prospect of having self-regulated value chains in partnership with the local people is indeed tantalising and novel.

At the same time, the rewards for succeeding are major. This approach could ensure a steady flow of finance to help empower civil society. This “hotline whistleblowing” can inform about unsustainable business practices in real time with a big speed advantage over traditional report writing. Compared to certification schemes, that can be costly because of external monitoring and include a number of middlemen, Kumacaya’s approach is more straightforward.

Will the traditional hostilities between companies and CSOs become water under the bridge? Are we witnessing the start of a new standard in sustainable production practices? Or is this river indeed too big for a safe crossing? Only time will tell. However, if we can create an effective dialogue between business and civil society, the seeds of trust can sprout.