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Coalition Fatigue and Collective Impact

Bangladesh’s garment industry has been in the news – and the hot seat – lately in light of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Over 1000 lives were lost in the worst industrial disaster since 1984. There are calls for major change in the garment industry, particularly for the multinational companies who employ garment workers, to change their practices dramatically or leave the country entirely.

The response on the part of the garment industry has been to create the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, a commitment among signatories to develop a plan to address the underlying causes of factory tragedies and prevent another Rana Plaza. Christine Bader quite fairly assessed the good intentions yet questioned the possible outcomes of the Accord in her recent Guardian article:

“At first blush, commitments to so-called "multi-stakeholder initiatives" sound great, especially for all of us who want action now. But these initiatives, which bring together companies, non-governmental organisations, and others around a particular issue, are only part of the answer – and the reality is that they won't solve anything overnight.

Meaningful collaboration takes time. The best-known multi-stakeholder initiatives have taken years to hash out, and the jury's still out on whether their negotiations have saved any lives."

Christine’s comment about the time and impact of such collaboratives makes sense to anyone who has ever served on a committee, let alone tried to significantly shift the practices of large corporations operating in an incredibly complex social and political environment. Those of us who work on collective impact projects understand the fatigue associated with years of failed coalitions.

Christine is right: bringing people to the table is only the start of the answer. Those well-intentioned coalition members must agree on a common understanding of the problem, an understanding rooted in a desire to solve a social problem not to simply impugn a single industry.

Those coalition members must also create shared vision for change, shift practices to accomplish that vision, establish an entity to support coordination and implementation, and measure their progress together to learn about their work. These are the practices we’ve identified as the necessary conditions for Collective Impact, meaningful change at scale, to occur.

It does take time for a system or systems to evolve. There is no one magic answer. In collective impact, we’ve learned that there are many answers that emerge through the actions of many different organizations. Those actions, when aligned to a common agenda, create impact.  That’s why I have hope that there can be progress in Bangladesh, if enough stakeholders come together with the commitment to create a plan for change, and the patience to implement it.

However, we have not yet documented an industry specific coalition similar to the ones Christine describes, though we have seen multinational partnerships including the private sector to fight hunger and malaria, and improve agricultural productivity.

Do you know of any coalitions or initiatives outside the United States that have meaningfully involved the private sector in addressing a social issue?

Erin White

Former Associate Director, FSG