Reflection: To Move Forward We Need to Let Go

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As we look to the 2030 agenda, we must take an honest look at the challenges at hand, particularly on how the past could hold up our future.

At the recent UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit UNGC Executive Director Lise Kingo reminded us that we have only around 5,000 days before we reach 2030, the deadline for achieving the Global Goals. This means we need “all hands on deck” to work together focused on the future we want.

In the past few months, I have heard time and again that the collaboration described in Goal 17 is crucial to progress. But I find myself wondering if the collaboration we need is being held back by what we are all “carrying”– our history, preconceptions, previous confrontations and potentially simply out-dated ideas or notions – especially when it comes to business-civil society relationships.

Business used to be seen as the “bad guys”. Our friend Niel Golightly, reflecting on his time at Ford in the early 2000s, notes how NGOs were driving the agenda for corporates at that time – applying adversarial pressure to challenge how business was done.

The nature of such relationships has undoubtedly changed. But in 2017, we are still, too often, wrestling with hostility between civil society and business.

In recent months, I have seen first-hand examples of businesses unable to work together, and NGO and civil society politics impeding progress. I have found organisations whose purpose is to drive positive change but whose leaders tell me there can be no partnership with particular businesses, only “punishment”, despite the potential for the company to scale up impact.

Business used to be seen as the “bad guys”. In 2017, we are still, too often, wrestling with hostility between civil society and business.

Robert Barrington of Transparency International puts it well, “Too much ground has been lost because of knee-jerk confrontation between civil society and business. For corporates to be part of the solution, and they need to be, civil society has to see them not just as the enemy.” This also applies the other way; if business had chosen to work more closely with other organisations earlier it could have accelerated progress on some of the world’s most critical issues.

It is possible to find common ground and collaborate on some issues yet still disagree on others.

For example, along with UNEP, Greenpeace has long been a supporter of the excellent collaboration Refrigerants Naturally!, driving change towards more climate-friendly refrigerants, of which Coca-Cola is a corporate member. But as Greenpeace’s plastic bottle campaign demonstrates it is no full-time cheerleader for Coca-Cola and there are still issues where hard-hitting campaigns are needed.

Such corporate campaigns, that demand greater progress from business, often help internal change agents make the case to senior decision makers to act and are still critical if we are to achieve an agenda as challenging as the Global Goals in just 5,000 days.

However previous confrontation should not preclude present collaboration. Talk about partnership is meaningless unless we are willing to make uncomfortable personal and organisational compromises.

Time is short. Our actions today must be driven by the future outcomes we seek, not the past. If that means letting some things go to get the job done, then I say so be it.

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