“Space is a social product… it is not simply ‘there’, a neutral container waiting to be filled, but it is a dynamic, humanly constructed means of control and hence of domination, of power.” Henri Lefebvre
It is difficult to discuss poverty in a 5-star hotel. Or that is what I felt when I was a facilitator at a number of business-NGO ‘stakeholder dialogues’.
Companies invite NGOs and other stakeholders to a one or two day event at a smart hotel to discuss issues of common concern. The civil society organisations invited usually have a history of pressuring the company to do far more on labour & human rights, faitrade, women’s empowerment, biodiversity, water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions and other sustainability issues.
Such events are a step forward from the time when companies saw stakeholders as needing to be ‘managed’. Businesses now recognise that a mutually beneficial relationship with civil society experts is essential to improve understanding of environmental and social risks in the supply chain. Stakeholder engagement events are in most cases genuine attempts by a company to shift to a more inclusive model where value is distributed more equally amongst growers, farmers, workers and manufacturers. NGOs benefit as they get direct access to senior business executives and the meetings offer opportunities to discuss potential partnerships.
“Apparently neutral words like ‘consultation’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘inclusivity’ paper over the underlying power dynamics between conflicting interests”. (Green, 2016: 36).
A lecture on Power and Counter-Power (Kavada, 2016) with an introduction to the power cube recently led me to revisit my experience of stakeholder dialogues. What I now realise is that power is rarely acknowledged when business and campaigners meet.
Stakeholder engagement is a result of NGOs demanding that companies open up and become more transparent especially on the decisions they are making around environmental and social justice issues.
If we look at the power cube it is a move from ‘closed spaces’ – where “elites make decisions and provide services to ‘the people’, without the need for broader consultation or involvement” – to invited spaces “where people are encouraged to join by authorities”(Gaventa, 2006: 26).
Gaventa poses an important question that is worthy of more consideration when bringing a business together with its NGO stakeholders. How is the space created, who benefits and on what terms? (Gaventa, 2006).
As Duncan Green observes in his 2016 book How Change Happens: “Apparently neutral words like ‘consultation’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘inclusivity’ paper over the underlying power dynamics between conflicting interests”. (Green, 2016: 36).
This is also suggested by Gaventa (2006) who discusses how participatory and inclusive language by powerful actors can mask who has the influence and who has not.
NGOs are probably more aware than business of the hidden and invisible forms of power in every space (Gaventa, 2006). They have likely accepted the invite from business as they see the possibilities of what Cornwall (2002) describes as transformative nature of what can happen when ‘invited spaces’ are inhabited by “alternative voices”. An individual organisation will have also identified the company as having the power to help fix a problem (Kavada, 2016), such as better working conditions for apparel workers in factories or fair-trade for farmers.
Business, I believe, could do more to acknowledge the invisible power in its ‘invited space’ of a 5-star hotel. These events are held with the aim of building trust through transparency – if this is a genuine intent then business should understand how its choice and use of space could affect what happens within it. Cornwall (2002) in her work focused on development looks at the theory of Foucault, Lefebrve and others to understand how space is never neutral, but informed by both previous interactions of the people that meet there and how that space is designed.
A business when designing a stakeholder meeting should consider how its company representatives may react in that space to an organisation that has led a sustained corporate campaign against it. Also it could reflect more how the design of the event (endless company presentations?) distributes or cocentrates power. As Cornwall (2002) points out examining the spatial aspects of consultations can help us be more aware of both the positive and negative potential of power. The challenge is lifting the theory off the page and applying it to often complicated space of real world meetings.
Cornwall, A., 2002. Making spaces, changing spaces: situating participation in developmet. IDS Paper 170, p.43.
Gaventa, J., 2006. Finding Spaces for Change. IDS Bulletin, 37(6), pp.23–33. Available at: http://www.powercube.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/finding_spaces_for_change.pdf [Accessed October 18, 2016].
Green, D. (2016) How Change Happens. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Blackwell: Oxford.
Photo Credit: City Chimp, Flickr