How can joint advocacy between civil society and business help to drive the policies needed to achieve the SDGs?

Join us for a discussion with panel of business and civil society organisations in the vanguard of joint advocacy

Live Panel

Tuesday 22 May, 3.00 – 4.00pm UK time / 10.00 - 11.00am ET


  • Ruth Mhlanga, Senior Private Sector Adviser, Oxfam
  • Sandra Martinsone, International Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Ethical Trading Initiative
  • Ilze Melngailis, Senior Director, Global Partnerships, UN Foundation
  • Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Selena Victor, Director, Policy and Advocacy, Mercy Corps
  • Dominic White, Head, International Development Policy, WWF
  • Samantha Johnson, Senior Manager, Enterprise Issues - Global Corporate Government Affairs and Policy, GSK
  • Simon Wright, Director, International Development, Save the Children
  • Julian Egan, Head of Advocacy, International Alert
  • Rachael Leman, Executive Director, CARE Action
  • Richard Gilbert, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty


A new area of collaboration between civil society and business in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is emerging in the form of joint advocacy. Businesses and civil society organisations are increasingly coming together through specific partnerships and broader coalitions to combine their voices and influence in support of the policies and resources needed to achieve implementation.

Evidence suggests that joint advocacy can be a powerful tool to change attitudes, policies and practices. A growing number of examples are emerging, but advocacy collaboration remains relatively ill-defined and challenging and, as a result, under-utilised.

A new report by Business Fights Poverty and the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School explores the rationale for advocacy collaboration, explains what it looks like, identifies some of the challenges and suggests a range of building blocks to inform the design of responsible and effective joint advocacy activities going forward.


  • Why is joint advocacy between civil society and business needed, and what are some good examples?
  • How does joint advocacy make a difference, what are some of the challenges and how have you managed to overcome them?
  • What needs to be done to enable more advocacy collaboration to happen?

This discussion is part of the Business Fights Poverty Challenge on Advocacy Partnerships.

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We’re looking forward to welcoming you to this written online discussion. Our panel will join live from 3pm UK time / 10am ET on 22 May.

Hi everyone - welcome to the live segment of this online written discussion.

Can I start by asking our panelists to introduce themselves…

Hello, I am Ruth Mhlanga Private Sector Policy Advisor for Oxfam GB leading Oxfam’s work on Private Sector and Sustainable Development Goals.

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Hi, I’m Rachael Leman, Executive Director of CARE Action, CARE’s sister advocacy organization.

Hello, I am Richard Gilbert - Challenge Director at Business Fights Poverty

Hi everyone! I am Samantha Johnson, and I am a Senior Manager, Enterprise Issues in GSK’s Global Corporate Government Affairs and Policy group.

Hello everyone - I am Jane Nelson from the Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

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Hello, I am Sandra Martinsone, International Policy and Advocacy Adviser from Ethical Trading Initiative.

Welcome everyone! Let’s kick off with the first question:

Joint advocacy is need because all too often, businesses’ lobbying efforts have limited the ability of governments to govern in the service of sustainable development by fueling a belief that attracting investment and trade requires keeping the cost of doing business as low as possible and the business environment as unregulated as possible. Therefore, extreme caution is required to ensure that the SDGs do not further accelerate the race to the bottom on public governance in the name of attracting business support and investment.

There is a need to reaffirm the role of governments as the main drivers in achieving the SDGs. The increased focus on partnerships with business risks distracting from the fact that more, not less, governance will be required to achieve the SDGs. Governments and regulators are key in setting the norms and expectations and monitoring sustainable behavior by business, but are often discouraged by strong opposition from corporate interests. Companies that truly wish to support the spirit of the SDGs should actively support government action in promotion of the public interest.

Example practice:

  1. As members of multi-stakeholder initiative, Ethical Trading Initiative, garment sector companies successfully lobbied the government of Myanmar not to exclude the sector from minimum wage levels.
  2. Companies speaking out against human rights violations in Qatar linked to the FIFA World Cup 2022
  3. Major international clothes retailers intervened on behalf of Cambodian garment workers to stop violent repression of protests demanding a higher minimum wage
  4. Companies taking a stand against discrimination, hatred, religious intolerance are fundamental issues where businesses have strong leverage over national and international governments. Recent US example:
  5. Removing support from regressive trade associations, here the investors are aligning their commitments and investors. Unilever departure from Business Europe over climate policy or the mass exodus from ALEC over climate policy.
  6. Reinforcing calls for urgent action on climate action
  7. American Business Act on Climate Pledge and more recent “Company supporters for “ We are still in”
  8. 10 major food and beverage leaders, “pledging to accelerate business action on climate change and urging governments to do the same by forging a robust international agreement.”

Julian Egan, Head of Advocacy at International Alert

There are several reasons why joint advocacy is needed and can be very powerful to drive positive change. Bringing together ‘unlikely’ partners can help create an interest and attract greater attention than partners speaking alone, which is critical to get advocacy off-the-ground. An example is the advocacy we did with Malaria No More to secure a slot for the Malaria Summit alongside the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. We met with Number 10 and the Cabinet Office and it was obvious why Malaria No More were advocating for the Summit, but the fact that GSK was also advocating for malaria, really struck home with the officials.

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Joint advocacy by civil society is emerging as a powerful tool to shape better policy, build political capital for change and shift entrenched attitudes in support of the SDGs.

Nearly three years after the adoption of the SDGs government progress on implementation is being hampered by fiscal constraints, short-termism, governance weaknesses and in some cases a lack of political will.

These constraints point to the need for active engagement by civil society and business to advocate for policy reforms and public resources in support of the SDGs. But our research shows that business-only and civil society only advocacy can face limitations.
Business advocacy alone may lack sufficient recognition of wider social and environmental challenges outside of the core business and supply chain and being a “first mover” on changes to policies and practice can be commercially risky.

Civil society advocacy may lack influence with governments and the necessary resources to sustain activity, and policy priorities may lack a sufficient focus on a government’s economic goals.

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Working together also gives an opportunity to go beyond focusing on the problem and consider sustainable solutions, building on our complementary expertise, reach and skills. Whilst social challenges are clearly understood and appreciated by civil society, they may not have all the information or tools at hand to consider the practical solutions needed to drive positive change. Involving the private sector can bring in our depth of expertise in finding practical, sustainable solutions and help us move forwards on issues.
Working together, our different voices also reach different audiences that we may not have reached on our own. A good example of this in action is the joint advocacy we, GSK, have undertaken with Save the Children in the lead up to the SDG Summit in 2015. Together we made the case for the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and child mortality targets to be included under SDG 3. Since then we have worked to keep UHC on the global agenda with a focus on the role of the private sector and we have been able to leverage each other’s networks and convening power to widen our engagement on with stakeholders with whom we might not traditionally engaged with. Save the Children has been able to facilitate GSK’s engagement with the UHC2030 partnership and GSK has enabled Save the Children to engage constructively with the global pharmaceutical sector, at a conference we co-convened in the side lines of the 2017 WHO Executive Board.


The importance and need for business collaborating with other businesses, civil society and government, lies in understanding that,
• The driving forces behind these issues are beyond the ability of one company to fix Conventional methods of corporate responsibility in supply chains cannot overcome wider systemic issues and

• Second, even where a company can do more, unilateral action can create competitive disadvantage. Sustainability approaches suffer from biases in a company’s structure, governance and priorities.

• For human rights and environmental sustainability to become operational norms companies need to spend more time analysing the wider system that keeps people trapped in poverty.


In many contexts civil society is a some sort of national conscious, which is speaking on behalf of the vulnerable, less privileged, marginalised, it challenges the powerful, is inconvenient to the status quo etc. Today’s pragmatic world does not necessarily always want this voice to be heard and gives enough space. Often, civil society lacks sufficient resources to compete with all the other voices. We constantly hear about shrinking civil society space around the world…
Business, on the other side, is gaining more and more power and weight. In this highly competitive, GDP-driven world Governments often will more likely listen to businesses and investors than NGOs. The aim of joint advocacy should not be about empowering business even more, but using the leverage of business to support social causes which lack voice or attention from the decision makers.


Joint advocacy can take different forms. It can be about internal advocacy within a single business institution e.g. Alert working with Anglo American team to shape their overall organisational approach. Or it can be joint external engagement to others. In Alert’s case one led to the other.

It took a number of years of trust building, understanding institutional challenges, constraints and opportunities. Long-term accompaniment is key. Learning to speak the same language and promoting change from the senior management down was key. Once trust is built and value demonstrated it is easier to do joint external advocacy as Alert did with Anglo in South Africa where we jointly encouraged the government to join the Voluntary Principles Process.

We applied a ‘critical friend’ approach. Meaning that we promote change through building relationships of trust while prioritising frank and honest discussions. We do due diligence assessment before working with any company to ensure a base level of agreement and avoid being instrumentalised. This contrasts with for example, a name and shame approach that some NGOs employ.

It allows the exchange of expertise/knowledge. Because of Alert’s work with Anglo we have become better in our advocacy around conflict sensitive business practice, while Anglo has enhances their practice and encouraged others to do the same.


Linking up the humanitarian and economic arguments is very powerful for a lot of policymakers. CARE has seen this in our partnership with Mars, for example, in successfully advancing legislation in the US Congress to improve food and nutrition security policies and programs. Policymakers respond to different arguments and constituencies, so when we can marry up a range of evidence from the field, messaging content and tactics, and show a joint effort across communities, it makes for a more persuasive advocacy effort that is more difficult to ignore than what we might have been able to achieve working in an isolated and siloed way.

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Echo the need for critical friend approach. Even when collaboration we still need to hold each other both NGO and company to account .