On 3 March, BCSDN organized its first public workshop on the topic of CSO – private sector engagement and inter-sectoral partnerships, within the scope of the activities with the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE). The online regional event titled “Unusual Allyship for Common Good: CSO – Private Sector Cooperation” discussed good practices and successful examples of collaboration with the private sector or social entrepreneurs with a common objective to bring a positive change or promote the civic space.
To set the scene for these relevant conversations, Ana Zbona, Programme Manager at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, noted that robust civic space is crucial not only for CSOs, but equally for businesses. When civic space is under attack, so are responsible businesses, as they benefit from the same elements of rule of law, fundamental freedoms and responsible governance. Current dynamics are raising expectations for companies to share democratic values and influence the democratic space, and the idea that companies are not political has been changing, as businesses need to go beyond the “do no harm” principle and actually do good. Ms. Zbona also presented the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights, which aims to bring all these issues closer to companies, and discussed several examples from around the world where the private sector aligned with civil society and joined the fight to defend the civic space and human rights attacked.
Looking through examples from the region of effective and meaningful cooperation between CSOs and the private sector that go beyond the concept of corporate giving or could be interpreted as corporate social responsibility, we reached out to our partners, colleagues, and members with a more extensive portfolio in this area. We were more than pleased to find out, although there is plenty more to be done to embrace this unusual cooperation, few CSOs are doing a brilliant job cooperating with the private sector in many particular areas.
Nikica Kusinikova, the Executive Director of Konekt, who has dedicated a significant portion of her career to building cooperation between the CSO and the private sector, guided us through their journey and developing a mutual understanding for each other work between the CSOs and the banks in North Macedonia. This initiative has raised out of the provisions introduced with the new legislation on anti-money-laundering from 2019, that introduced many new and seemingly unnecessary responsibilities for the CSOs as bank users, as well as for the banks as service providers. Ms. Kusinikova explained how through the learning process, the hostility among the two sectors turned into mutual understanding and allyship regarding making each other’s everyday work much easier by understanding each other’s needs, demands, and obligations by law.
Christina Forster, the founder of Heartbeat Innovations and Communications, gave us perspective on the common ground that CSOs and businesses already share. She told us about her personal journey, from a journalist to a content creator marketer and a digital storyteller, as by her judgment, a much more effective way to cause the change she wanted to see. Ms. Forster painted a beautiful picture of how much more effectively businesses and CSO can work together towards the common goals, through the examples of social businesses such as Bagel Bagel from Serbia and MaMa Organa from North Macedonia. She also discussed the importance of finding a common language among CSOs and businesses, as a way to bridge the gap between the two impact worlds.
Konstantina Keruti, Programme Manager at Partners Albania for Change and Development, represented the activities in this area implemented by our member organization over the years. One of the core flagship activities Partners Albania is providing that is the cornerstone of building the relationships between the CSOs and the private sector is the so-called business speed dating event – an event that enables CSOs and businesses to understand better each other work, to overcome the language barrier and to find support for their goals. Ms. Keruti also presented the two Giving Circle events organized by Partners Albania, which have supported 6 community led actions, and the Green Businesses Competition organized annually since 2012, which has resulted in 125 entrepreneurs being trained and coached by business representatives, 31 social enterprises funded, and 88 individuals being employed.
Anamarija Velinovska from the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” – Skopje introduced the participants to the example of “know-how” exchange enabled through their activities, that makes space for discussion among the private sector, the public institutions, and the CSO community, in regard to the policymaking process that fit the needs and meets the targets. In her address she emphasized the importance of the private sector for the creation of a healthy economic ecosystem, stating: – “The private sector can be the catalyst or the obstacle for the economic growth of one country.” Thus the need for a comprehensive approach towards the legal environment that the sector needs to work in line with.
The leitmotif that kept coming up as a conclusion was that, nowadays, consumers and society expect responsibility towards social issues and human rights, and companies being engaged in that line is the new expected standard. CSOs and the private sector share the same civic space and therefore share both the benefits and the responsibility to keep that civic space open. A conclusion of the discussion among the participants, visibly invested in the topic, was also the need to dive deeper into the perspectives and opportunities for improving this cooperation in the region and better understand the role of the private sector in defending and promoting civic space.
To that end, to support the process of conducting deeper research on the topic of CSO-private sector engagement, BCSDN has opened a call for research proposals with which we aim to support civil society actors in the Balkans to explore the potential for the private sector to play a greater role in strengthening and promoting civic space, explore the extent to which private sector actors are accountable to the people and respect human rights, gather evidence of current practices and lessons learned, and identify potential routes for effective coordination and/or collaboration.
This regional event has opened the floor for further discussion, research and ideas for models for cooperation between the CSOs and the private sector, while catching the attention not only by the CSOs, but of the donor community as well.
This activity has been organized as part of the project “Strengthening development partnerships in Europe to contribute to more sustainable development in Europe and beyond”, implemented together with FOND Romania/Black Sea NGO Forum, supported by the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, and funded by EU and Sida. The main objective of the project is to strengthen CSOs capacities and effectiveness to engage in promoting effective development cooperation (EDC) and to contribute to a more conducive environment for civil society’s enhanced engagement for promoting development partnerships.