Collaborating for Change: Going Behind the Brands

How can collaborative processes between non-profits and businesses
effectively create significant economic, social and environmental value for

This is a question that has been standing central to the lectures of
the second module of our AMID-traineeship
and a question also asked by researchers in the field. Austin and Seitanidi,
for instance, state that the ever-growing complexity of today’s social and economic
problems transcends the capacity of any individual, organization or sector to
adequately deal with it. As our global society slowly realizes that we have to
face these problems together, businesses and non-profit organizations are
increasingly engaging with each other to achieve development goals and, hence,
‘create value through collaboration’. Austin and Seitanidi also identified that
academic literature currently shows that the search for greater value creation
by non-profit, non-governmental and business sectors has given rise to the
proliferation of ever more, and more robust, cross-sector partnerships but that
‘it has not been analysed by researchers
and practitioners to the extent or with the systematic rigour that its
importance merits’.
To contribute to the call for more empirical research
on multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs), we would like to put the spotlight in
this blog on Oxfam’s global ‘Behind the Brands’-campaign as an interesting step
in this direction.


Photo Credit: Oxfam International  

Behind the Brands
is an Oxfam campaign to help create a world where every individual has enough
to eat.  While the world produces more
than enough food to feed all of humanity, still every day 1 out of 8 people
goes to bed hungry. According to Oxfam, these individuals are, unfortunately, often
farmers and farm workers in the developing world that are active in a food
production system that is completely failing them. The world’s largest food and
beverage (F&B) companies have an important say in the policies that drive our
global food production system. These companies also often link consumers
(through their various brands) to developing country agricultural policies and
practices (through the sourcing of raw agricultural commodities). In its
campaign, Oxfam first collected publicly available information
on 7 important issues related
to the sourcing of agricultural commodities from developing countries by the top 10 largest F&B companies.
Next, Oxfam engaged and collaborated with these companies to obtain more information and worked together with the
companies to review and assess the information collected. All ten companies
voluntarily collaborated with Oxfam and the campaign, thus creating a very
unique kind of multi-stakeholder partnership (MSP).


Photo Credit:

MSPs inhibit various characteristics. Examples are: goal
alignment, shared resources and risks, mutual respect and trust and
complementing each others’ strengths and weaknesses. A key problem that always arises
when organizations partner up is if the ambitions and interests of all parties
are clear and out in the open. NGOs almost always use activism as a powerful tool
to change current ways of working, especially when it comes to advocating for local
working conditions and the environment. Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign is
also taking this activist approach by developing a company scorecard
comparing and assessing policies and promises of the targeted food and beverage
companies. Challenging the worlds’ largest F&B-companies could have
backfired and made Oxfam and the targeted companies adversaries. However, the
opposite happened: the campaign sparked a dialogue and created a partnership
between the NGO-world and the world of large multinational and multi-billion
dollar corporations. This unique partnership has not gone unnoticed. According
to the Financial Times:
“[Oxfam’s Behind the Brands-campaign] reflects a new era in the relationship
between companies and campaigners – one in which activism and collaboration

 For Oxfam, the collaborative relationship is both a victory and
struggle. While staying true to its ambitions at heart, and being open about
its perspective and stance, Oxfam’s campaign opened the floor for dialogue. Behind
the Brands also seemed to have triggered critical self-reflection on the
companies’ side. Where dialogue is the first step, it is up to companies to really
wake up and take up their responsibilities. The struggle, however, is to what
extent Oxfam is actually able to take the role of both watchdog and a partner that works together with business in a
collaborative value creation process.
A next step could be to use the current
partnership as a stepping-stone to a partnership with a more transformational
character. In such a partnership, Austin and Seitanidi explain, there is a
strong sense of shared learning about social needs, partners’ roles in meeting
those needs and bettering the lives of harmed individuals through social
innovation. Such a partnership thus holds a true potential to create positive
shifts in the current global agricultural production system. Such change can
only come about through collaborative value creation and, as Oxfam has showed, activism
can function as a powerful trigger for enhancing partnership formation.

Michelle van den Berg & Jan-Willem Pot (AMID trainees)

Michelle is currently working at the Humanitarian Unit at Oxfam Novib. Although she has been around marginally longer than most of us (read: started working here two weeks earlier), she has remained a mystery to the Academy until recently. When she is not confused about what she calls her ‘Third Culture’ identity, she is debating on whether local capacity building precedes humanitarian response.

Jan-Willem is working on the Fair Tax project at Oxfam Novib. When he is not expressing his disdain regarding growing economic inequality, he finds peace in early morning empty train rides. His quick ability to name any tax haven in the world is suspicious and fascinating at the same time.  


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