Joint Civil Society – Business Advocacy Is Emerging as a Powerful Tool to Drive Policy Change in Support of the SDGs

By Richard Gilbert, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty and Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

Civil society and business are increasingly seeing joint advocacy as a valuable tool to overcome limitations with individual advocacy. Our new guide to advocacy collaboration highlights three opportunities to drive change in support of the SDGs, as well as six key building blocks for responsible and effective advocacy collaboration.

Nearly three years after formally adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is increasingly clear that governments face significant challenges that could undermine progress.  These include fiscal constraints, lack of political will, institutional failures and state fragility. Moreover, governments are always under pressure to deliver short-term results, but many of the complex systemic challenges being addressed through the SDGs require long-term integrated policy reforms that need to be pursued far beyond most government and electoral lifecycles.

These constraints point to the need for active engagement by civil society organisations and companies, not to replicate government responsibilities or let them “off the hook”, but to mobilize resources and advocate for policy reforms in support of the SDGs. 

A growing area of collaboration between civil society and business in support of the SDGs is emerging in the form of joint policy advocacy.  Businesses and civil society are increasingly combining their voices and influence through specific delivery partnerships and broader coalitions to drive the policies and resources needed to achieve implementation. 

Historically, civil society has been at the forefront of environmental and social advocacy and campaigning but in recent years there has been a notable willingness amongst companies, at least among those integrating sustainability goals into their core values and business models, to publicly take similar policy positions and to advocate strongly for them.

Individual advocacy by civil society and business plays an important role but we believe is insufficient to drive the long-term changes to policy and practice needed to achieve the scale and ambition of the SDGs.  Business advocacy on its own may lack sufficient recognition of wider social and environmental challenges outside the core business and supply chain. Civil society advocacy may lack influence with senior policy makers and the necessary resources to sustain activity. Individual advocacy by both sectors can also be undermined by issues of trust, credibility and legitimacy.

Civil society and business are increasingly seeing joint advocacy as a valuable tool to overcome these limitations.  Our new guide to advocacy collaboration highlights three opportunities to drive change in support of the SDGs.

First, by pooling expertise, evidence and insights, both sectors are better able to understand issues, agree shared priorities and identify new and better ways to tackle complex systemic challenges. Through the process of collaboration itself, they can build the political capital that transformational change requires.

Second, given that structural and mindset change is hard to achieve, unlikely partners advocating together can help to shift old attitudes and norms and enable wider reach to non-traditional stakeholder groups and opinion leaders. The ability of companies and NGOs to combine economic arguments with social, humanitarian and environmental messages can be particularly effective in gaining attention and changing the way policy makers conceptualise issues.

Third, advocacy collaboration can also build a deeper understanding of complex issues between and within organisations, which generates internal shifts in attitudes, behaviours and practices over time and enables organisations to build the trust necessary to move into more challenging policy spaces.

But advocacy collaboration can be hard to deliver in practice.  Participating organisations need to be prepared to navigate operational, governance and reputational challenges. 

To help overcome these challenges, we have identified six key building blocks for responsible and effective advocacy collaboration which should be considered when designing and implementing joint advocacy initiatives.  When used, these building blocks can strengthen trust between advocacy partners and increase the perceived legitimacy and impact of joint advocacy.

To fully realise the potential of joint advocacy, new mindsets and skillsets will be needed by all sectors.  Governments need to establish policy priorities and frameworks that bring together all sectors and incentivise action and collaboration. Businesses need to build a deeper understanding of the broader systemic challenges beyond their core operations and supply chains and ensure consistency between internal policies and practices and external lobbying and advocacy.  Civil society organisations need to be more open to balancing mandates to challenge business with a recognition that business needs to be part of the solution in many cases, and to aligning their own internal programmes, ranging from campaigning to cooperation.

When effective, advocacy collaboration can be a useful mechanism for combining the resources and voices of diverse organisations in a way that governments will at a minimum listen to, and ideally consult and engage with more strategically in a common quest to achieve the SDGs.

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