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Private sector engagement

Seamstress Orbelina Alberto was among a group of women who formed workshops to bid on a project to make school uniforms in El Salvador. Women-owned businesses across Latin America could benefit from Oxfam’s new initiative to support their enterprises. Photo: Percy Ramírez / Oxfam America

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Oxfam believes the private sector can be a valuable contributor and partner in addressing poverty, injustice, and inequality around the world.

The private sector plays an increasingly vital role in the lives of poor people around the world. Global corporate expansion has been accompanied by shrinking governments, with power and resources shifting from the public to private sector. This shift has left large corporations with outsized influence, and as a result, they are facing rising public demands and expectations. Corporations have enormous potential to make investments and decisions that can help provide economic opportunity and growth that is inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and beneficial to poor people. They can help provide dignified work, decent livelihoods, and just treatment for millions of people in developing countries. But they have not consistently prioritized or effectively pursued these goals. The gap between what is possible and what has been achieved so far has is large. It has created urgent and untapped opportunities to pressure and engage businesses in new efforts to address poverty. Oxfam is working to channel the creativity, resources, and influence of the private sector to support Oxfam’s broader mission of fighting poverty and injustice around the world.

Oxfam’s work with the private sector is rooted in three core beliefs:

  • Economic growth and healthy markets are essential to overcoming poverty.
  • Growth alone is not enough, as poverty is fundamentally tied to marginalization and power disparities.
  • Long-term development solutions require systemic approaches to markets, cutting across government, business, and civil society.

Activities

Oxfam America is uniquely suited to seize the opportunity to influence the private sector. Our advocacy is founded on:

  • Deep expertise in development.
  • The reach to follow global investment flows and supply chains.
  • The resources and political influence to apply effective pressure.
  • Credibility and relationships with key constituencies—governments, corporations, civil society groups, and affected communities.

Oxfam’s private sector engagement is embedded in its local programs in developing countries and global campaigns that focus on agriculture, food systems, extractive industries, climate change, access to medicines, and disaster risk reduction. Within each of those areas, Oxfam seeks to empower relevant stakeholders (local communities, farmer organizations, civil society groups) to change industry practices and influence government and global policies.

In 2006, Oxfam America created a department that would focus on the private sector. Our staff, which grew to 16 professionals in 2011, brings expertise from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors to engage with industry leaders.

Our private sector engagements span a wide spectrum of activities, from adversarial campaigning to close cooperation with major multinational corporations.

Over the past five years, we have focused on:

  • Drawing attention to the poverty impacts of private sector actors and their corresponding responsibilities.
  • Developing new standards for industries, addressing the social as much as the environmental side of sustainable practices.
  • Facilitating breakthrough pro-poor collaborations and innovations between public and private actors.
  • Bringing the influence of private sector actors to support structural change.

Having a dedicated department focused on the private sector has strengthened Oxfam’s engagement along all lines of its work, in particular, the following:

  • A wider range of tools for corporate advocacy across Oxfam’s programmatic and campaign priorities.
  • Stronger research and communications capacity around private sector issues.
  • Broader networks with key industry and investor groups, corporate leaders, and business initiatives.
  • New corporate partnerships to drive market system innovations.

Campaigns: Behind the Brands

One of our major new projects is our Behind the Brands campaign, launched in February 2013. Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign evaluates the 10 largest food and beverage companies’ policies and practices on social and economic justice and environmental sustainability. It compares them to their peers and targets and shines a spotlight on specific areas for improvement along the supply chain. The campaign also informs consumers about what these improvements could mean to poor people in developing countries who help produce the foods and beverages they consume. The campaign challenges the leaders of this critical industry to engage in a “race to the top.” See more at http://www.behindthebrands.org.

Innovation Projects: Women in Small Enterprise (WISE)

Women entrepreneurs in many developing countries face enormous obstacles. They may struggle to get access to credit and property. Household obligations, customs, and cultural standards can thwart them as well. WISE helps women build small businesses by working with partners and experts in financial services, women’s rights, advocacy, community development, and vocational training to support women in overcoming these challenges. One objective is to address the “missing middle financing gap” by providing credit to women who need loans bigger than what microfinance can provide but smaller than what mainstream banks typically offer.


Goals & priorities

Our goal is to seek structural change
in targeted markets through engagement with a wide range of actors. This market-systems approach enables us to act as a catalyst in mobilizing key government, business, and civil society actors to identify and address market constraints. These are market inefficiencies that marginalize poor people. Oxfam seeks to intervene strategically at various points across the market to ensure that the social costs and benefits of private sector activities are recognized and addressed. The approach aims to bring tangible benefits to poor farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, and communities while reinforcing their rights and voice in development. We also encourage the private sector to make long-term commitments to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In working with complex market systems, Oxfam strives to be pragmatic and adaptable. Oxfam understands that companies can be both part of the problem and part of the solution and that a corporation’s real strengths reside within its business practices, its influence over suppliers, and its relationships with industry groups and governments. Oxfam targets each of these actors at those points where it can leverage maximum impact. Our priorities include intervening across the private sector, working with:

  • Retailers and global corporations
to influence suppliers. Our goal is to secure commitments from major companies to take responsibility for their impacts on rural communities.
  • Influential corporate brands and trade groups to advocate for government policies. We engage corporate brands to strengthen government policies on key issues including climate change (reducing emissions and financing adaptation efforts) and to undertake reforms to make development assistance more effective.
  • Business groups, multilateral institutions, and governments to set standards across industries. We aim to ensure that affected communities have the knowledge and capacity to ensure that their voices are heard and that their human rights are protected by governments and respected by the private sector.
  • Shareholders, banks, and investors to influence particular corporations. We plan to continue harnessing the power of investors to enhance corporate disclosure of risks in sourcing food ingredients such as cane sugar and palm oil from developing countries.

Achievements so far

Advocacy

Over the years, Oxfam’s corporate advocacy has played a major role in spotlighting human rights violations by oil and mining companies, in pressuring the pharmaceutical industry on intellectual property rights and tiered prices for developing markets, in driving fair trade coffee procurement by major retailers, and in securing commitments from fast-food companies to strengthen labor rights in their supply chains.

In these and other campaigns, Oxfam has worked with an array
of allies—community groups, nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners, unions, shareholders, investors, retailers, business groups, academics, and government bodies—to highlight abuses, press for reforms, develop normative standards, and push for industrywide and legislative solutions.

Oxfam America counts on an e-community of more than 440,000, a network of student groups, members of Wall Street law firms, corporate champions, and an Oxfam fund that holds shares in targeted companies, as well as Oxfam affiliates and offices across the globe. Oxfam’s advocacy is premised on careful research, openness to dialogue and collaboration, and deliberate ratcheting up of pressure to ensure constructive outcomes.

We have successfully pressed:

Retailers and global corporations to understand and address the human rights, social, and environmental impacts of their investments, activities, and sourcing.

  • Oxfam has engaged with communities affected by private investment projects to help them understand the risks those projects pose to them. This engagement enables vulnerable communities to understand and assert their rights, and to bring corporations and local and national governments to the table to acknowledge their responsibilities and propose remedies. In 2009 Oxfam partnered with the Canadian organization Rights and Democracy to develop a community-based human rights impact assessment tool (HRIA). This tool, called Getting It Right, is available in English, Spanish, and French, and is a dynamic, participatory approach for analyzing the human rights impacts of private foreign investment. Oxfam piloted the tool with two different groups in two different regions, the US and Bolivia. Read more about this pilot program and access the tool.
  • To address mining company practices, Oxfam and allies worked to secure commitments from retailers and jewelers representing 30 percent of the gold market to commit to the responsible sourcing of gold.
  • Our Behind the Brands campaign is challenging companies to improve their social performance and take responsibility for their impacts on poor people. See more at http://www.behindthebrands.org.

Influential corporate brands and trade groups to advocate for government policies.

It explains the need for consistency between companies’ sustainability commitments and political endeavors, including public policy positions, trade association memberships, lobbying activities, and political contributions. It explains how companies that integrate high social and environmental standards into their operations can systemically embed these improvements more broadly through responsible public policy engagement.

Business groups, multilateral institutions, and governments to set standards across industries.

Oxfam has actively engaged with more than a dozen standard-setting bodies and helped secure stronger commitments from the UN and International Finance Corporation on business and human rights.

Shareholders, banks, and investors to influence particular corporations.

Oxfam helped mobilize collective pressure from communities, NGOs, and shareholders on Newmont Mining, resulting in a successful shareholder resolution and new board-mandated policies for community engagement.

Fostering Innovation

Over recent years, the private sector has shown great interest
in the largely neglected four billion consumers living on less than $4 per day. As companies look to develop new markets and redesign products and services for people living in poverty, there are opportunities for NGOs to promote innovations that benefit poor people.

Oxfam has a particular interest in these efforts because they can empower key constituencies like smallholder farmers, community organizations, and female entrepreneurs—and can bring broader systemic change to markets. Oxfam’s widespread networks in developing countries, its decades of experience working with poor communities, and its access to global corporations make it an ideal broker.

Oxfam has established a fund to marshal private sector resources in support of small businesses in Latin America. The Women in Small Enterprise (WISE) program is designed to foster women’s economic leadership, enhance small firms’ bargaining power in supply chains, and enable public policy reforms that build just and inclusive markets. Oxfam has also embarked on a groundbreaking initiative to bring microinsurance to vulnerable farmers in Africa.

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