This paper is from a session at the Regional Conference on CSRO Accountability & Sustainability – Critical Lessons from Best Practices, February 18-20, 2002. Text of this paper was prepared by the Philippine Business for Social Progress.
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The issues I would present are not fully formed ideas. Therefore, I am counting on you to critique and enrich them.
Some of the problems are only getting worse, even if the awareness in some arenas were growing. It is apparent that no one group or sector would be able to solve the problems. When we take a look at the three sectors, we see negative stereotyping on each other. If we think that a cross-sectoral collaboration is needed to solve the problem, there could be some obstacles because of negative perception on other groups.
Now, in order to address the issue there is a need to go to scale. It's not going to be done little project by little project. Though little project would make a difference to those it makes a difference. But to address poverty issue, it has to be done in bigger ways somehow. My hypothesis is: We can only do it through alliances. In order to create alliances, given the gap that exists between groups, bridges have to be built. My proposal is: CSROs are in an ideal position to build bridges.
Bridge has values inherent in them. It could reach across divides to find common ground for common good. Bridging in a vacuum has no particular merit, unless to further the common good. I like to challenge the group to think what could be done or abilities that need to be shown in order to bridge. One of the most important is the "ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes." If you're talking to someone within or outside your group, you need to be sufficiently self-aware, aware of the self and the issues you bring into the table so it won't create a fog between you and whomever it is you are dealing with. If you are talking to someone, you must perceive how they are feeling, hearing and searching for meaning to words they are saying. A lot of it has to do with intuition. But some of it has to do with listening carefully, like learning to understand and speak different languages. I like to hypothesize that each group has its own vocabulary. It has its own articulating concepts that are quite different. Unknowingly sometimes, the language used for a particular issue could be offensive to the other groups.
The Ford Foundation is now trying to conceptualize its program in terms of "social justice." To those in the NGO sector, the concept is normal. Surprisingly to some in the corporate sector, the term is threatening. They feel threatened because they feel that the NGO sector is accusing them of being unjust. If we are to make a determined effort to reach across sector, we need to be contemplating on what language to use. We need to avoid term that alienates.
I tend to be a natural bridger. In meetings, I am hearing every statement of people in the room. I am listening and hearing how the people are responding to each other.
The more powerful the group, the less they feel the need to learn and understand other languages. Anyone who feels he cannot solve the problem by himself, would be inclined to work with other groups. If one can solve problems the way he wants it, why is there a need then to collaborate. One of the interesting dynamics facing us today is despite the growing power of business sector, they are unable to solve the problems by themselves. Take a look at the protest set at the World Economic fora, people are getting scared. I happen to know Henry Kissinger. At one time we're talking he said: "what is this about NGOs? Who do they represent?" It astounded me that he even knew the term NGO. Suddenly, he realized that these NGOs are players on the international scene that need to be taken into account. This brings me to another point, which is: sometimes when one talks about bridging across divides, the implication may be we have to put conflict aside. Sometimes, in order to get heard by another group, it is necessary for some groups to create conflict to get their voices heard. So if one takes a bridging mentality, think that conflict is one tool of creating dialogue. Once you get one, you will get everyone working in same direction.
Another factor in bridging is a genuine interest in networking. To be a good bridger, you have to be willing and interested in people other than yours, at the same time enjoy it. The enjoyment actually shows and tends to draw people to you. A lot of building network with diverse relationship is based on certain personal relationship and trust. It takes a lot of reaching out to be able to build those relationship, especially when it is across divides, ideology, language or otherwise.
CSROs have special qualities as bridging institutions. Part of that is where CSROs sit in society and part is in the composition of people representing the organization. People in CSRO purposely tried to select diverse group of people to compose their boards. With conscious effort, and diverse group within, there already exist the possibility of bridging across divides. In Fundacion Esquel, trust within the Board is purposely built, which led to innovative results. Many of the board members are from business, government or planners. They started with loan fund program complemented with grant fund, and then venture capital fund. The communities they are working with graduated from needing technical assistance and grants to getting loans to eventually handling investments. The community businesses started to grow in ways that they were not only profitable but also enabling to many employees.
The positioning is also crucial. If you are a community-based organization, NGO, big business or even government, there is a gap in the middle, which is an intermediary function. Sometimes, universities or trade unions fill up the gap. Between is where precisely bridging takes place. It only happens when one group decided it would be part of its mission. CSROs are more inclined to amass capital, which could provide clout at the same maintain their conviction to stay rooted in the community. This gives CSRO credibility and larger reach than any types of institutions.
CSROs and business sector have very different missions, skills and orientations. Business thinks NGOs take long to make decisions, that everything has to be participatory and nothing get done in the process. NGOs talk of business as greedy never think of social good and ripping off everyone. This is an obstacle that needs to be removed.
The blending of skills could create value added. In the case of FSSI, looking and using the market worked as well as using the business technology to cater to the poor.
It is too easy to thinking of business technologies and end up thinking of workers or community as subjects rather than actors. In going to scale, there is a need to focus on people as owners of business and beneficiaries of its value added that has been created. It takes the civil society's social conscience and profit sector's business sense. Between bridgers, a certain amount of trust is required.
Bridging with government poses problems because of changing government or not changing government. Funding tends to be patronage to create credibility for party. So every time government changes, the priorities changes, and no one wants to continue the program started even if it is a good one.
Q. The risk of co-optation, when you're building linkage between groups, when there's power or financial imbalance, what are the strategies for avoiding them?
R. You have to find allies to support the powerless group. If you find strong enough allies, then people feel they don't have to back down.
Q. Is bridging a character or skills that is innate or is it something that could be learned?
R. Synergos wouldn't start working in bridging leadership program, if we didn't believe that most of its aspect could be learned. For some people, it would be hard because of the personality element. Not all are bridgers but a few aspects are skills. We're working with Asian Institute of Management to highlight element of good bridgers and come up with a curriculum.
Q. Bridging and partnership always have unequal power. In case of political power, they really would like to utilize people from civil society. The partnership may be a kind of enticement or co-optation. In the process, we are having good civil society leaders who cross to another sector. What can be prevented to maintain the kind of balance so we'll not be co-opted?
R. I have no clear answer to that. Being strongly rooted on ones own values speaks well of the person. One has to know oneself to know when one is tempted. It takes a lot of reflection. It is also nice to have good friends around who criticize.
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