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On "A Message from our Lead Sponsor"
by Rob Reid on Jan 9, 2013 - 3:35 PM EST

This morning, many of us received emails from Statoil welcoming us to National Conference 2013 and explaining how Statoil is so closely aligned with progressive social change and sustainability. Although this organization very strongly celebrates its industry ties and pragmatism, I found the degree of spin associated with Statoil's claims about oilsands development rather insulting to the readers.

If we are an organization that prides itself on speaking truth to power, why do we let power speak untruth to us?

If we are an organization that values empathy and solidarity, why do we stand in line with organizations opposed by grassroots movements?

If we are an organization that focuses on systemic innovation, why do we broadcast support for counter-innovating, anti-environmental, anti-democratic companies?

I know a large discussion has been going on since at least last year's conference, but I thought today's events warranted some new discussion, especially to help those new to EWB familiarize themselves with the tensions challenging our organization. For me, I am very concerned with how far we are allowing our ideals to be coopted in the name of holding traction. Posts of this type go back several conferences. It seems that we continue to let these things happen without doing anything about them in earnest. Although I have attempted a civil tone in this post, I'm sure I am not alone in my outrage.

I look forward to hearing everyone's (EWB staff, members, sponsors, colleagues) thoughts here and at Conference.

I have attached the text for those who did not receive the message.

Attachments:
statoil.txt

Leah Rowlinson, Jan 9, 2013 - 4:19 PM EST

I agree. I too was really upset by this. Additionally, I fear the implications of aligning ourselves so deeply with big corporation that not entirely ethical.

Christine Blair, Jan 10, 2013 - 1:51 AM EST

(before I rub anyone the wrong way, I'm not in any way saying that we should accept oil sands sponsorship or being sent spin, or cosy up to people because they can spin their argument, or we should use spin in our own communications - just that this was an interesting message if you ignore the content)

I was also upset. I was also impressed by the wording and tone of the argument. For a message I deeply disagree with and took to be false diservice to the EWB community, they sure did a good job of writing it to get people on their side. I admire the way the argument was framed, while at the same time the message itself angers me, with the spin and oversights and the degree of "putting everything in the best light" (they weren't outright lies). I think there is still something to be learnt from a message which makes me feel talked-down-to.

If we, as leaders, can in turn phrase our messages to inspire while adding in the (missing in this case) questioning and humble attitude, and a healthy dose of fact and respect for our audiences.... that is powerful. They recognized (part of) the core issue (oil sands vs. environment); pointed out a similarity between the opposing sides to bring them closer together. Strong negotiation/debate tactics in any situation. I think they really blew it when they implied they were hiring (certainly one of their goals), but I also think they have a mandate to do that.

I'm curious what eveyone's thoughts are on alternative messages they could have sent out which would have been positively received, considering their business?

Sean Boots, Jan 10, 2013 - 5:42 PM EST

Hi guys! Just a quick word to say, props for bringing it up. I think it's way better that you've mentioned it here, instead of (eg.) silently being upset at the message!

I know this has come up in past conferences, and something that the sponsorship team for this year's conference did much earlier this year was to survey EWB's members for their thoughts on this topic.  (https://my.ewb.ca/posts/93181/ from June 2012)

The oil sands are definitely a super touchy subject, where people have opinions ranging from

  • "this is great for the economy (etc.), who cares about the environment", to
  • "if we are going to develop this resource, let's do it in the most sustainable way we can" (which I think the letter was going for), along to
  • "it's not actually possible to develop the oil sands in a responsible way at all".

...and so evidently, two people holding opinions similar to the first and last one would have trouble holding a constructive conversation on the topic. :P

Personally, I thought the letter was pretty thoughtfully written, emphasizing that middle ground of, "we need to do this as responsibly as possible". (That said: I know very little about the oil sands and the issues around it). That and, there's something to be said for them contributing a lot of financial support to EWB national conferences two years in a row - something to be grateful for and that has hopefully contributed to a slightly more awesome world. Christine's question is a really good one though - what would a better, alternative letter perhaps have looked like?

In any case - thanks guys for sharing your thoughts on this!

Cheers,

Sean
Ottawa City Network
2013 Conference Team (but speaking on a personal note here) 

Cameron Rout, Jan 15, 2013 - 12:31 PM EST

I have absolutely no problem hearing what any company has to say about anything relevant to our values. We cannot expect to drive change without listening to the people who are directly affected by the change we propose.

We didn't end Tied Aid by not listening to CIDA, we didn't drive massive change in the Ghanaian government by not listening to MOFA, so why would we not listening to the sectors most representative of Canadian engineering? The sector most relevant to us?

EWB is under no threat of losing its integrity just because someone shared an opinion. How do we expect to engage and drive change if we don't even listen, if we are somehow afraid of the engineers we claim to represent?

At what point have we ever allowed "our ideals to be coopted in the name of holding traction". Has inviting engineering companies and oil companies to our conference even remotely detracted from the expression of core values of EWB? No, it has simply given the discussion a relevant audience.

We need to listen, and listen, and listen. If Statoil wants to share with us, then we should encourage that and listen as best we can. If we are so afraid of losing our identity then perhaps we should form a stronger basis for it. 

Cameron Rout, P.Eng
Calgary City 

Rob Reid, Jan 16, 2013 - 12:21 PM EST

I just got home from conference. Thanks everyone for sharing your opinions there and here on myEWB. Between sponsors and people from all parts of EWB, there was a lot of good discussion on the extractives sector.

To address Sean's point on middle ground: Although EWB prides itself on finding a third way, there often is no middle ground and compromises that amount to appeasement rather than innovation perpetuate constant systemic problems. I believe a stronger stance that pushes the system is necessary. I don't believe our present stance (please do better CSR) is strong enough to address the problems of weak public institutions and disempowerment of affected groups (the companies, not the people or the government, effectively get to decide people's rights and opportunities).

To Cameron: Certainly a dielectic is required, but if we extend we need to hold our potential partners to extend back and connect. The email I was upset about to me was clear doublespeak. I will say that the address during Gala was a very major improvement. We must agree not simply to talk, but to listen and commit to moving forward. I certainly agree we need a stronger identity, and that's a challenge given the diversity of the organization and ambiguity of our work.

Please keep the multi-paragraph, thoughtful and challenging responses coming!

Cameron Rout, Jan 16, 2013 - 5:22 PM EST

Rob, I think this is a pivotal issue that can be reflected on directly from the conference learnings. Your words remind me of Dr. Westley's comments regarding the inseperability of the change agent from the system itself. By simply engaging oil companies we have become part of the complex adaptive system of for-profit NRE organizations in Canada.

She also described such systems as being difficult (nigh impossible) to understand, however each member must simply follow their own governing rules, like the birds remaining equidistant from two other birds in the flock. This analogy reminds me that we do in fact have a very strong set of rules to follow within our immediate interactions, that is our very deliberate and articulate set of values.

By adhering to these values, united as an organization, I believe we can navigate the tumultuous collision of the two complex systems of organizations without losing our identity. In fact, I believe that if we are faithful to these values that we will cause other organizations to adopt them and have a dramatic impact on the complex adaptive system of organizations in Canada: for-profit, public, private, not-for-profit, etc.

Let us allow them to share their doublespeak and weakly defined values and in return we will influence them, even literally overwhelm them with our values and demonstrate a community commited to driving change with tangible values. If we are united in our understanding of our own values, then we can act in solidarity and trust eachother to face challenges in a similar spirit. If we do this then our identity will be the influence to overcome some of the greatest challenges we face in driving change, such as finding a space for companies to honestly reflect on their impacts and ask for help where it is needed.

I am convinced, now, that the best way to interact and influence the complex adaptive systems we become a part of as we seek to drive change is to remain in touch with our values. This way we will become like the little birds in the flock that can act in unison as part a greater movement.

For the sake of review, our values are:

Address root causes for impact: We start by clearly defining the impact that we want to help bring about, and then think through the complexity of social change so that our actions target root causes.

Strive for Humility: We learn by being open - open to new ideas from anywhere and anyone, and open about our mistakes.

Invest in people: We know that true change will require a movement of socially-minded leaders. We support and invest in each other to help build this movement together.

Courageously Commit: All change begins within ourselves. We commit to personal growth through regular self-assessment and have the courage to ask for feedback.

Ask tough questions: We only improve when we ask tough questions about our past, present, and future work to determine if we are having the maximum impact for Dorothy.

Dream Big & Work Hard: We strive to make the impossible possible, through a combination imagination, hard work, innovation, passion and a willingness to take risks.

Our Bottom Line: We Put Dorothy First

  • We strive to do what she would advise us to.

  • We help bring her voice into the rooms where she needs to be heard.

  • We stay independent to be able to stay true to her interests.

 

EWB Values

 

Back in 2011 I helped facilitate a workshop on "Holding ourselves accountable to our Values", we came up with some good ideas. Please have a look and help come up with some more: http://notes.ewb.ca/Holding_ourselves_accountable_to_our_Values

Umair Muhammad, Jan 17, 2013 - 11:27 PM EST

I think it’s important to be aware of the stakes involved when discussing matters like this. I’m often surprised at how unaware people in EWB are about the seriousness of the climate crisis. According the most recent estimates 400,000 people die every year, while hundreds of millions of others are negatively affected, as a result of the anthropogenic global warming that has already been set in motion. Vector-borne diseases like malaria now have larger ranges because of rising temperatures while increased incidence of drought, flooding, and saltwater intrusion are seriously affecting food production worldwide.

400,000 people -- virtually all of whom live in the Global South. Perversely, those who have made next to no contribution in creating climate change are its first victims. I would like to point out that this situation is a close moral equivalent to all the rich countries in the world getting together and sending soldiers around the world every year to round up 400,000 brown and black people and systematically executing them -- and this, of course, says nothing about the hundreds of millions of others who fall ill, go hungry, and/or lose their homes as a result of the changing climate.

The situation is still quite a bit more dire.

The increase in the average global temperature currently amounts to about 0.8 °C above the pre-industrial average. As there is a lag in time between the initial release of greenhouse gases and the warming they cause, we have yet to feel the full effect of the gases that have been released into the atmosphere. It’s estimated that a total of 1.4 °C in warming above the pre-industrial average will occur as a result of the greenhouse gases emissions to date. This means that even if we stop all industrial activity right now, we’re still sure to almost double the extent of the warming that we already see. This means a lot more dead people. A lot more blood on our hands.

But it gets still worse.

Keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 °C – the target set by the IPCC – will require an 80 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Yes, 80 percent. That’s not a typo. This means that rich countries like Canada have to reduce their emissions by 90 percent or more because we can’t exactly ask poor countries to start lowering their consumption levels and industrial output.

If we don’t achieve the reduction target we will trigger amplifying climate feedbacks, such as releasing the massive natural reserves of methane locked in arctic permafrost, and activate runaway climate change. Simply put, this will lead to cataclysmic outcomes. The few instances in history which parallel our current trajectory don't provide us with encouraging insight. About 251 million years ago the earth witnessed the kind of rapid climate change we are set on bringing about. The result was mass-extinction -- 90 percent of all species on the planet were exterminated. Sometimes referred to as the Great Dying, an incident such as this one could very well be recreated thanks to human-made global warming.

There will be much to worry about, however, even before the cataclysm. As the title of NASA scientist James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren suggests, the transition from here to utter catastrophe will be, quite literally, a stormy one. Increasingly warmer global temperatures mean that the concentration of water vapour in the atmosphere is rising, which provides more energy to storms -- cyclones, hurricanes, thunderstorms and the like. Also, as a consequence of warming ocean temperatures, the range in which harsh tropical storms develop is becoming larger. Hurricane Sandy is a sign of things to come in the next several decades.

As a result of the combination of harsher storms and a rise in sea levels, coastal cities and low-lying nations around the world will be devastated. Increased rates of drought, floods, and fires will make food shortages commonplace. The resulting refugee crises will likely lead to disorder and conflict, as such events often do today. As the scale of these crises continuously expands, we can expect social breakdown to eventually emerge. The ensuing chaos will leave no one untouched in our deeply interconnected world.

Now, I would really like someone to explain to me how the development of oil sands fits in with the need to drastically reduce emissions. How is a “middle road” possible here?

I sometimes feel like people in EWB stay willfully ignorant about climate change and associated issues so they have an excuse to fall back on when it comes time to defend EWB’s practice of taking money from oil interests. I often hear variants of the statement Sean made: “I know very little about the oil sands and the issues around it.”

Another excuse is the one made by Cameron, about how we can “influence” oil companies by taking money from them and then engaging in dialogue with them. One would have to have child-like innocence to make such a claim and do so honestly. In a relationship where one party takes tens of thousands of dollars and the other receives the money, who is in a position to influence whom? In Nikolas Barry-Shaw’s book about Canadian NGOs, Paved with Good Intentions, the following question is put: “Does the doormat influence the boot?”

There’s often also a resort by members of EWB to making vague statements about the organization's vision and values and how these can be relied upon to make sure we get the impact we need with those who give us money... or whatever. For those, like Cameron, who make such statements I’d like to offer the following passage from Tom Paine’s Common Sense:

“… though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of, when applied to the description of something which either cannot exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of description, will be words of sound only, and though they may amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind.”

Finally, there’s often also the excuse made that oil sands development is the fault of consumers who drive and use electronics etc.: We need to blame consumers, not the companies. Making such excuses is exactly the opposite of “systemic” thinking. The idea that consumers drive production -- referred to as “consumer sovereignty” in economics -- is laughable. Writing on the “myth of consumer sovereignty,” the eminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith asked whether “a new breakfast cereal or detergent [is] so much wanted if so much must be spent to compel in the consumer the sense of want?”

Companies like Statoil and Chevron are a part of organizations like the American Petroleum Institute, which lobby governments and spread propaganda among consumers. These efforts are made to ensure that subsidies and lax regulation for the oil industry are kept in place and further entrenched, and of course, so that absolutely nothing is done to avert the climate crisis. These people are spending tens of millions of dollars to make sure things go the way they want. And, it seems, their making sure that they give some of their money to NGOs like EWB so that organizations that are potential assailants instead maintain a compliant attitude.

My complaints about EWBers making excuses about taking money from oil, of course, don’t extend to everyone within the organization. There are quite a number of brave people who are against the practice. But it’s pretty clear that their voices are not being heard by the organization that they work so hard on behalf of. Every time someone raises a concern about where the money comes from, someone always says something along the lines of, “Oh, great job for starting this conversation. Isn’t it great that we are a self-critical organization that doesn’t shy away from debating difficult issues?” The conversation, of course, leads nowhere. It just serves as a way to release some pressure from the cooker. Lots of excuses, like the ones I’ve made note of, are made and things stay as they are.

In doing this, EWB is not only turning its back on some of its most brave and critical-minded members but it’s also clearly failing in its mandate. To maintain that this organization stands for development while disregarding the climate crisis – indeed, becoming a poodle to those who profit from bringing about the crisis – is not only short-sighted and self-serving, it’s criminal.

James Wattam, Jan 18, 2013 - 7:20 PM EST

I would like to voice my support for Sean's articulation of a middle ground. The two extremes have at least one thing in common: they are both approaches that very rarely lead to change.

On some of these issues companies may even be leading (at least in Canada) I have heard that some companies are calling for the government to put a price on carbon as the current approach of piecemeal regulation is harming both the atomosphere and the companies. Perhaps that's an example of an area where a middle ground/"critical friend" approach to corporate engagement could be very worthwhile.

Sorry my reply isn't quite so "multi-paragraph" Rob.

Cheers,

James

Ian Murray, Jan 18, 2013 - 9:25 PM EST

To Umair: Although your concern and analysis of climate change seems very reasonable to me "Keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 °C – the target set by the IPCC" is not something we can achieve, regardless of any change in our greenhouse gas emissions. It is my understanding that, aslong as the planet has polar icecaps, it is considered to be in an "ice age", and also that our planet cycles continously in and out of ice ages. This means that there's nothing we can do to stop or prevent any sort of global warming, especially considering the contributions we have already evidently made. The issue, at least for me, lies morein that we're accelerating climate change, perhaps at a rate which will not allow the ecosystems of our planet (humans included of course) to adapt to the change at a survivable rate.

Currently, it is technologically infeasible for us to affectuate any kind of artificial "global cooling system", since in present times our cooling mechanisms involve the simple transfer of heat, and at a large energy cost. Releasing ozone or any other cooling gases into the atmosphere would require similarly large amounts of energy, and would not be substantial enough to counteract the general warming process that we experience today. Humans are the destablizing factor, and rationally I can only put the duty of care in stabilizing our planet on the shoulders of humans as well. The effectiveness of most NGOs, EWB included, is definitely dissappointing, outrageously so. It's a human duty though, not an organizational one, and so I'd like to also stress that believing that NGOs and similar organizations can affectuate the change alone is a bit of a ridiculous idea.

With that in mind, the approach put forward at the National Conference this year regarding our Extractive Industries Venture (or whatever we're calling it) did interest me a lot, and it seemed very well thought out. I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing how the piloting phase of the process turns out.

The final thing I'll add, relating specifically to the presentations, dissertations, and messages broadcast to the EWB community by extractive organizations at this year's conference, is that the impression I got, in most cases, was that the representatives had little-to-no comprehension of the context in which they were speaking. I was offended by the disregard and ignorance demonstrated by some of the corporate representatives. Furthermore, I found their approach to sharing their ideas laughable. As a person who atleast makes an attempt to learn and build my perspective regardless of pre-convictions, appropriations, equivocations, and the many other forms of bullshit, I need to see both (or all) opposing views of an issue before I can find any value in any of them. The corporate presentations we saw at Gala were 100% comprised of the speaker expressing information and ideas in an attempt to say "we're not horrible; dislike us less", and while I'm sure some of what they said was true, I have an incredible hard time determining fact from fiction when only one side of an argument is being explored.

My train of thought stops here,

Ian

Umair Muhammad, Jan 19, 2013 - 12:28 AM EST

Ian, you’re bringing in the issue of natural variations in climate where it doesn’t belong. As you say, the planet naturally goes through natural warming and cooling cycles. But these are best described as taking place over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. When we talk about human-made climate change, on the other hand, it’s a matter of change taking place on a decadal, if not yearly, scale. And it’s not about accelerating climate change. It makes very little difference which way the natural tendency of the Earth is pushing things. Whether the planet itself is in a natural phase of warming or cooling, because of human-made climate change it’s going to be warming, and rapidly so. In fact, at this point in human history there’s no reason to take seriously the idea that the climate will naturally cool ever again, even if it wants to. Just a handful of factories emitting greenhouse gases can easily counterbalance any natural trend towards global cooling.

Based on the time scale we need to be considering (the next few decades) we certainly can achieve the 2 °C target. That said, this target is hardly a fix-all. It’s just all we have at this point. An increase of 2 °C in global average temperature is going to be about 3 °C for sub-Saharan Africa, which means certain death for countless millions.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say: “believing that NGOs and similar organizations can affectuate the change alone is a bit of a ridiculous idea.” Nowhere in my post did I make the claim that “NGOs and similar organizations can affectuate the change alone.” I’m advocating the following: EWB should not take money from oil companies. If we stop taking money from oil companies does that automatically mean that we have to set out to solve the climate crisis on our own? If we don’t play pet poodle for oil companies, that means we’re working alone? What happened to the Canadian public, whose interest in social and environmental issues can be roused by our efforts? What happened to the machinery of the democratic state (remote, though it may be) that we live in? All of that no longer exists if we stop taking money from oil companies? It’s either we take money from the companies and spread propaganda on their behalf through emails to conference attendees, etc. or we go it alone?

EWB, as an organization which says it stands for poverty-reduction, should care about climate change and issues associated with it (like the oil sands). If we care and want to do something effect change with regards to it, then we should not be taking money from those who have clear material interest connected to the oil sands. It’s simply an ethical matter.

The same is the case for taking money from mining interests. If EWB is taking a position on mining, which will no doubt have something to say about mining companies and what they should be doing, from an ethical standpoint it should not be taking money from mining companies. Is that really very difficult to understand?

Let’s say, for instance, that near where I live a company wants to build a dam. I figure I’ll start a non-profit organization to take up and advocate a position among people in the community on whether the dam should be built. If my organization receives money from the company that wants to build the dam isn’t there a concern that the position I decide to take will be along the lines of what the company wants?

What I’m suggesting isn’t radical. It’s common sense. And it’s simply advocating that EWB stick to its values: “We stay independent to be able to stay true to [Dorothy’s] interests.”

Ian Murray, Jan 19, 2013 - 2:11 AM EST

Only the first pargraph was to you in particular Umair, the rest was geared more to people who had experienced this year's conference. And I agree, it's supposed to happen over a large amount of time. I was just establishing that putting any sort of expectation of some kind of limit on the part seems a bit misleading on the part of the IPPC.

I could attest that I disagree whole-heartedly with the idea of sporting their brands and logos at our conference. There's no place for them with Dorothy, but giving us money without helping them back in anyway would work for me on a rational level. Aslong as they're propagating their b.s. through us though, I'd have to say I'd agree. I don't need an e-mail from him. That's not the right source of information for me.

Kevin Hanson, Jan 20, 2013 - 2:21 PM EST

So I think a good point to bring up here is that EWB is one organization out of a great many that is trying to help solve one or more of the world’s problems. Which is a good thing, because EWB as an organization has finite capacity and resources, and we cannot and should not be trying to solve all of the world’s problems all at once. EWB is a small organization in the grand scheme of things, and I feel the key to our success is to pick one or more niche that fits well with the skill set of the people we have, and do the best job we can at tackling those specific issues.

I thus find it curious that the topic of the science of climate change has taken over this thread, since for me personally, that’s not a topic I heard brought up even once over four days of attending Conference this year. Nor is it mentioned at all in the Conference delegate handbook, or for that matter the main EWB website. Which is not to say Climate Change is an unimportant or non-critical issue, it is merely to suggest that I’m not seeing an alignment between the direction of this thread discussion and the core focus areas of EWB at present. I would submit that there are many organizations out there (Greenpeace, Pembina Institute, etc.) that are much better positioned to make progress on issues relating to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions than EWB is. Instead let’s focus on what we’re good at, which is rural African capacity building and systemic approaches to improving institutions and governance in the public and private sectors in the countries and sectors that we work in.

As such I’m going to more narrowly address what I feel was the original topic of this thread, which I interpret to be, does corporate sponsorship of this Conference advance or hinder the goals and objectives of this Conference and this organization?

It should be noted how important this Conference is to the organization as a whole, some of the main reasons being:

  • It injects a huge amount of motivation and energy into the staff and volunteers that propels the organization forward over the course of the year
  • It allows everyone within EWB to network and create a sense of community that is essential to maintaining a nationwide organization
  • It provides an opportunity for people to propose new venture initiatives to the organization at large
  • It enables EWB to bring together external people from a variety of different sectors to discuss and engage on policy issues that would not be possible at the less high profile event.

As the person who was responsible for ensuring the financial viability of this year’s Conference, I can tell you with complete certainty that it would not have been possible money-wise to hold this Conference without corporate sponsorship support. Conference affordability to chapter delegates (particularly student chapters) was a major issue that was agonized over extensively by the Conference team this year. The registration fees that we applied to chapter delegates were judged to be the maximum level that could be levied before affordability started preventing people from attending this Conference in significant numbers. Even at this level, registration revenue constituted only 40% of the money we needed to run this Conference. The other 60% came entirely from corporate sponsorship.

This then is the choice that EWB faces. If we feel this Conference (and by extension this organization) in its current incarnation adds value, then corporate sponsorship is a necessity. To forgo that revenue source would diminish the resources we have to achieve our objectives and impair our ability to achieve our goals, in my opinion to a significant degree.

So what then are the risks that EWB faces by accepting corporate sponsorship revenue? Here are some that I’ve heard raised:

  • We could be providing a propaganda forum to companies to advance their own interests at our event
  • We could be helping to ‘repair’ their image of companies who are looking to use our brand to help their reputation
  • We could be compromising our ability to be an independent voice when taking positions on various industry sectors if we are taking money from those same sectors at the same time.

These are all legitimate concerns, and it is thus valid to raise them, however I believe that EWB in general and the Conference Team in particular have been very cognizant of these issues and have taken steps to mitigate them as much as we can. Some of the steps the Conference team took to manage the sponsorship issue this year are the following:

As Sean indicated in his prior post, the Conference team posted a survey on MyEWB early on in the planning process to get a sense of how the EWB membership would like to see this issue handled. I’ve included a presentation with this post that summarizes the responses we got. It is important to note that of the 65 people who responded, a grand total of one person commented that they did not want to see oilsands or mining companies represented at Conference (slide 22 in case you’re interested). While it’s always risky to attach statistical conclusions to a voluntary survey like this, I think the general trend is clear that barring companies from individual sectors from participating in this Conference is a minority viewpoint within EWB. Most people seem be OK with collaboration provided it is done carefully and thoughtfully. Some of the other key points we took from these survey results:

  • A diversity of companies from many sectors should be represented
  • Strong CSR policies along with a willingness to change and accept criticism are essential
  • There needs to be an opportunity for meaningful dialogue with these companies, it can’t be just about money and giving them a forum

Taking this knowledge into consideration, the Conference Sponsorship team thus undertook the challenge of finding the revenue to pay for this Conference. Close to 400 companies were looked at to one extent or another, and there was a screening process applied whereby companies judged to not be in sufficient alignment with EWB’s values were not approached to contribute. Further, it’s worth noting that twice in the last two years EWB has refused to accept sponsorship money that we were being offered because the company in question had too many unanswered questions associated with it in terms of their CSR and local stakeholder interactions track record. So EWB has actually been reasonably picky about who we choose to financially partner with.

How high we set the accountability bar in terms of deciding which companies to accept money from is definitely a judgement call, and there is always room for discussion on that. In the specific case of lead sponsor Statoil, this is a company that consistently ranks as one of the world’s most socially responsible companies (all sectors, not just petroleum), so if we’re not willing to take money from them, then we would in effect be saying we’re not willing to take money from anyone.

http://earthandindustry.com/2011/02/oil-company-tops-list-of-100-most-sustainable-corporations/

Once EWB accepts a company for corporate sponsorship, there are guidelines that we have in place that governs what their involvement at Conference looks like. Each company sponsors an EWB defined amount, so that no one company has an undue financial influence on EWB or this Conference. This is consistent with EWB’s overall strategy of keeping revenue sources as diverse as possible so that we are not beholden to any one group. Each company gets an EWB defined package of benefits at Conference (logos, limited stage time, etc.), which does NOT include a say in internal content development. All this they agree to in advance or we don’t take their money.

On the topic of EWB losing its independence in taking positions for CSR, mining, etc., I don’t see this as any different than EWB criticizing CIDA aid policies, even though a quarter of EWB’s funding comes from CIDA, which is something EWB has been able to navigate successfully for some time now. Again I think the key is a diversity of revenue sources, which is why it’s so important to build relationships with a broad cross section of organizations, companies and interests so that EWB can maintain its independence with any one of those groups.

So to summarize then, yes corporate sponsorship is a tricky topic to navigate and we always need to be aware of the risks that go along with it. I’m happy with the way the Conference team and EWB managed this issue this year, and I think we’ve struck a good balance between meeting the financial needs of the organization while staying true to our values. 

I doubt there will ever be 100% agreement on this subject, but I would hope that respectful dialogue and a recognition of the diversity of viewpoints on this topic are things that people keep in mind as this discussion moves forward over time. Thanks everyone!

Kevin Hanson

2013 National Conference Finance Lead

Yazan Kawar, Jan 20, 2013 - 3:22 PM EST

Kevin, thanks for the extremely well thought out response to this discussion, and thank you to everyone on your team for making this conference a possibility.

I don't have the ability to go into as much depth as I'd like on the subject, but I will say that compared to past conferences that I've been to (though it's been a while since my last one), I was extremely impressed at the level of engagement with EWB from all of our sponsors and speakers. I have been to many conferences where at least one speaker praised us for our great work building infrastructure in Africa. In my memory, nothing of the sort happened this time. On the contrary, I could tell each of the guests was well-informed about EWB's vision and approach to development. This also extends to the speakers from our sponsor companies. I was particularily impressed at how candid the president of Statoil was, that he understood the conference theme and tied it in to his speech, and at how he was aware of this very conversation happening in the organization and that he challenged us to see it from a different perspective. This level of conversation is like nothing I've really seen before, and I see it as a great step forward.

I know there are a diversity of opinions in this organization, and that is a good thing, but after this conference I really feel great about our Invested Partnerships program. I feel like this is the best avenue to creating a change in corporate attitudes and culture, and it aligns with our approach of being pragmatic problem-solvers.

Umair Muhammad, Jan 21, 2013 - 2:56 PM EST

Kevin, thanks for refusing to engage with anything I’ve said and helping to prove my point about EWBers intentionally choosing to remain ignorant.

We shouldn’t discuss climate change on this thread, according to you, because it wasn’t mentioned in anything connected to this year’s conference and it isn’t one of the “core focus areas of EWB at present.” What a great attitude to have. We shouldn’t bother with getting into a substantive discussion of facts relating to things that EWB doesn’t officially happen to be narrowly focusing on at the moment. Blinkered vision is the way to go.

My foremost intention in detailing the seriousness of the climate crisis was to make sure that the stakes surrounding the issue were understood – so that this discussion stood within the relevant context. Since we’re talking about oil companies, the issue of climate change and its impacts on those who live in poverty (which is EWB’s area of focus) seems to me to be the proper context. No one is suggesting that EWB should try to “solve all of the world’s problems all at once.” It’s fine that EWB has a “niche.” But it seems to me that we need to be concerned with the context in which the work we focus on finds itself.

As an example of someone in the non-profit world who takes context seriously I would like to point to Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health. I’ve sometimes heard leaders in EWB claim that this organization is quite like Partners in Health. Based on the narrow-mindedness and excuse-making observable in this thread, anyone even remotely familiar with Farmer’s writings and the work done by Partners in Health understands that such claims are an insult to Farmer. Farmer’s primary area of focus is, of course, health. But he doesn’t shy away from obtaining an intimate understanding of, and voicing opinions on, the various matters that affect his area of work, even when such matters are seemingly controversial. He has, for instance, openly condemned the role of Western governments (particularly the US, Canada, and France) in overthrowing Haiti’s democratically elected government in 2004. The vast majority of the other NGOs working in Haiti, on the other hand, took the path that EWB is walking and didn’t raise a concern about this matter, as they deemed it to not be strictly within their area of focus. This was no doubt a cowardly betrayal of the Haitian people, whom the NGOs profess to serve.

I should also point another fact to be learned from Farmer that’s been missing from this discussion: he seeks to gain an understanding of issues that are not within the strict bounds of his area of interest not only because he needs to be aware of the context of things, but also so that he can appreciate and learn from the complementarity between their work and the work of others.

Kevin, I find it remarkable that, on the one hand, you explicitly ignore the context of the issue at hand and, on the other, claim that due diligence was done in assuring that the right sponsors were chosen. Those two things contradict each other. Sean’s admission that he knows “very little about the oil sands and the issues around it” also stands in direct contrast with the claim that things were thought through properly when seeking money from corporate donors. Was there anyone on the conference team who thought it might be worthwhile to understand the issues relating to the oil sands or climate change? From what I’ve heard so far, it seems unlikely. And even if someone on the conference team had gone out of their way to understand the issues in detail, it’s clear that their input would not have been welcome as far as the fundraising team was concerned – because, in the opinion of the Conference Finance Lead, EWB doesn’t need to care about things that stand outside of its narrow focus, even when they clearly impact the organization’s area of focus.

It’s also pretty clear that your claims about the existence of a substantive screening process can’t be taken seriously. Alongside Statoil, which is supposedly a magical green oil company, Enbridge and Chevron, which are not exactly shiny companies, find themselves prominently featured on the conference list of sponsors. I hope I don’t have to tell you about the kind of things Enbridge has been up to recently in, among other things, its efforts to manipulate public opinion in Canada. Chevron, as everyone should know, has had a horrendous record in Nigeria ever since it began doing business in the country in 1913. Also, it’s operations in Burma (or Myanmar) have been a major source of revenue for the extremely repressive ruling military junta. And most recently in the news: Chevron has been doing all that it can to avoid paying $18 billion fine for dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador. Do Enbridge and Chevron seem to you, Kevin, as companies with “Strong CSR policies along with a willingness to change and accept criticism”? It’s great that you have two examples of companies that EWB rejected offers to take money from, but if Enbridge and Chevron can get through the screening process it’s pretty clear that the two companies who EWB refused to take money from in the past are not much more than convenient tokens for you to point to whenever the funding policy is criticized.

We have to realize that allowing companies like Enbridge and Chevron, and even Statoil, allows them to use our brand to advertise themselves as socially concious and caring over a long period of time. The propaganda benefits don't end for them as soon as the conference wraps up. When Chevron wants to distract the public from its crimes in Nigeria or the Amazon, for instance, it can get to talking about all the money it gives to us. Do we really think that the good EWB does outweighs the damage done by allowing the likes of Chevron to continue committing crimes? Is anyone here bold enough to make such a utilitarian calculation to begin with? As these questions haven't seriously been thought about and discussed within the organization at large, it only becomes more clear that we haven't been engaging in due diligence when it comes to raising money.

Kevin, you also contradict yourself when, on the one hand, you say that the corporate funding was absolutely crucial to putting on the conference and, on the other, claim that EWB’s independence is not affected by its resort to taking money from such ill-famed actors. If they are so crucial to putting the conference on, then it’s pretty clear that EWB has to moderate any criticism it could potentially make of them in order to secure funds year-after-year. As is the case in most of these cases, the need for tempering of criticism comes about not as a result of a conscious decision but a somewhat-numbed feeling that some things are best left unsaid – some things, as you have said Kevin, are best left to others to research, think about, discuss, and try to fix: we’ll just work on our area of expertise. But forget about meaningful criticism, as things stand now oil companies are being openly praised by leaders within EWB. Statoil’s attempt to spread propaganda among members of EWB, Sean has opined, was “pretty thoughtfully written.”

This leads me to explicitly make an important point that I don’t think has gotten through so far: accepting money from oil companies affects the very soul of this organization. Most people have tried to isolate this incident and expressed concern simply about corporations using the conference (or even just the Statoil email sent as part of the conference) as a platform to spread propaganda. We should be concerned with a much wider problem. Leah put it well when she stated her general concern: “I fear the implications of aligning ourselves so deeply with big corporation that not entirely ethical.” The kind of chicanery on display in this thread makes it apparent that many EWBers are willing to look away from wrongdoing, or be concerned with learning about important issues like climate change, because of where the money comes from. This has wide-ranging consequences for the organization’s work.

This is precisely what happens when one’s material interests are tied up in something – there’s a reason why we have ethical concepts like “conflict of interest.” It’s rather difficult to not be affected by it. Even someone like John Stuart Mill, who was something of a paragon of uprightness in his day, was a victim of it. While India was being ravaged by British colonialism Mill, as an employee of the British East India Company, would testify the following on the company’s behalf: “The Government in which [the East India Company] have borne a part has been not only one of the purest in intention, but one of the most beneficent in act, ever known among mankind.” It’s not as if he didn’t have access to reports about the tyranny being engaged in by the company; as far back as 1776 Adam Smith would note in The Wealth of Nations that “three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger in one year" in Bengal because of "the mercantile company which oppresses and domineers." The difference in opinion between Mill and Smith arose, of course, because of the former’s material interests. Mill simply chose to look away from inconvenient facts. Even Gandhi was known to temper his criticism of rich capitalists who donated money to his cause. And in extension he would temper his criticism of capitalism in general (despite referring to himself a socialist after having read Marx).

Now, is anyone seriously ready to proclaim that EWB is a more principled force than John Stuart Mill or Mahatma Gandhi?

The idea that EWB is surely safe from having its independence eroded because it has shown itself to be critical of CIDA despite receiving lots of funding from it is wrongheaded because of two reasons. First, receiving money from a public body, which has a diffuse social mandate, is a bit different from receiving money from actors in the market, who first and foremost have an explicit private mandate. It’s easier to make criticisms while receiving money from the former and get away with it. Second, and more importantly, it’s clear that EWB’s criticism of CIDA, and the Canadian government in general, is tempered. EWB does criticize government policy but it does so within a very limited range. Government policy on aid is overwhelmingly our focus, whereas anyone who has seriously studied the issue of development should recognize that aid has little to do with the matter. The government doesn’t mind so much that policies on aid are criticized. That’s one of the main reasons for having an aid program to begin with: it distracts people’s attention from the rest of the government’s foreign policy. Chomsky puts this point well when he relates:

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate with that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

EWB’s large member base provides it with an opportunity to make a significant contribution to social change. If not getting large amounts of corporate funding makes it impossible to hold fancy annual conference, I think it's well worth taking the hit. I've been to a number of conferences which are not held in grand convention halls because the receive little or no funding from oil and mining companies, but are much more worthwhile to attend because issues that matter are actually being talked about.

Unfortunately instead of actually building an environment where people come together to meaningfully deal with problems relating to poverty, a lot of lip service is given to wonderful sounding ideals and meaningful ideas are kept out of view. Most people, particularly those in positions of influence, avoid uncomfortable facts and substitute informed discussion with resort to bringing up tired excuses. There’s a kind of “postmodern authoritarianism” in play within the organization. Feelings can stand in for facts where the latter get in the way of established doctrine. This is why Kevin can say: we don’t need to talk about climate change because we did a survey about people’s feelings and the results supported our belief that taking money from oil companies is a good idea. Imagine if the people working for EWB in Africa disregarded the facts on the ground and made decisions by emailing a voluntary survey to members about how they felt about things. That would be quite ridiculous. It’s just as ridiculous to not take an accounting of the facts and the proper context when decisions are made about fundraising policy.

The survey was of course not at all representative. The attention given to this thread, and others like it, is a testament to the very real concerns among general members of EWB about where the money comes from. It’s not uncommon for me to receive emails from people, or have people come up to me at EWB events to, thank me for raising my voice about a belief that they themselves hold. I think everyone should be speaking out, of course, but I understand why many choose not to. EWB doesn’t exactly offer a friendly environment for bringing up uncomfortable realities. Sure, there’s dissent and debate, but it’s kept within a narrow range. Despite all the talk about asking tough questions, there is a clear reluctance (and I’ve personally even been subjected to overt hostility) when actual tough questions are asked. And at the end of the day, the people making the decisions can just wave everything away by making a comment about there being “diversity of opinion” within the organization and doing whatever they want.

Some time ago I started distancing myself from EWB because I realized that my input on things was not really appreciated and that my efforts would be better put to use elsewhere. Having written all this, I’m struck by an acute feeling that I’m once again wasting my time with EWB. The people who need to read this and get something out of it will no doubt remain unmoved even if they bother to read it.

… Ah well… Hopefully someone will find what I’ve written to be of use.

Rob Reid, Jan 21, 2013 - 4:39 PM EST

Umair:

Thanks for taking the time to pin down the real issues at play here and to keep involved with trying to change EWB despite your many frustrations. I regret the lack of community that drove you away in the first place given your passion and insight. I must challenge you to ask yourself if your comments serve to strengthen or divide the community. Certainly sharing emotion is crucial to building trust and empathy, criticism and discomfort are pivotal in redefining our philosophies. However I worry that those who do not know you personally might take your last post as polarized, ad hominem, or unrealistic. Those of us who have had the chance to have you as a friend and colleague understand your personality and way of sticking it to people as part of your commitment to social justice, those who do not could understandably feel marginalized by your comments. I invite everyone to continue to participate in this discussion on the good faith that we are all working for the same thing and care about each other. I know I opened this thread with a post that was more reactionary than thoughtful. As organizations grow bureaucratically, they always seek dispassionate, politically-sensitive expressions as ways to protect their image. I hope that at least on myEWB we may share our elegies with eachother in solidarity and friendship.

To the subject at hand:

There has been excellent discussion on the nature of development, environmental justice, and human rights. We could discuss this forever and I hope we do. Right now I'd like to share what I think a better way of EWB working could be. The general idea I think is to ground ourselves in reality and work reluctantly within the system to change it. As the Immortal Technique relates in the Poverty of Philosophy; "There is usually nothing wrong with compromise in a situation, but compromising yourself in a situation is another story completely, and I have seen this happen long enough in the few years that I've been alive to know that it's a serious problem". Some ways I'm thinking about achieving this are: 

1. Stress deeper and broader learning of the factors affecting development. I understand I didn't mention any tradeoff: we simply need to know more and have more experience, as this post shows. If we don't know enough about something, working on it is just self-satisfying and unlikely to create lasting change. A fixation on traditional development can be traced through the organization in our conference workshops, school outreach presentations, and every time we are mentioned in the media (take my recent interview as an example). We need more history, economics, climate science, political science, and current events. Ventures like By The People or our past JF James Ehrman's work on sustainable agriculture that take a direct and holistic approach to social change give me hope. 

2. If we are being misunderstood it is our role to reiterate our position. As evidenced the aforementioned interview, nearly all my Imagine campaign responses, and nearly everyone who asks me about EWB, our stance is very misunderstood. This is partly because people in general have larger day-to-day concerns than paradigms in international development, partly because of the false boundary that exists between international development and social change in general, and partly because EWB does a bad job communicating its position. The best thing we have is the Visions and Value, which we absolutely can't expect the public to understand. What might work is official statements of support or condemnation for specific policies, practices, doctrines, or incidents of the governments, industries, NGOs we work with. This is a very rough idea, but I think we need to build a tough spine to hold us up if we are to engage. Just imagine working with a company that knows we disagree with one of it's practices? I think such an atmosphere would be much more conducive to change than the current model. If someone could elucidate our current strategy for how we change companies through invested partnerships here, that would be great. If a company refuses to engage because we are critical of it, it wasn't interested in a dialectic after all.

These are my rough thoughts for now, hope they make you think.

 

Jon Haley, Jan 24, 2013 - 2:31 AM EST

Hey Everyone, I hope this post is not dead yet and I’m glad it has been getting some well-deserved attention. I’m hoping I can add several points and attempt to direct the conversation towards some additional tangible outcomes and actions.

Climate Change is the issue – As mentioned earlier climate change is very likely the defining issue of our time and it has been well established that there is no approach (neither abortive, mitigative nor adaptive) that will avoid significant and far-reaching impact to the planet and to humanity. From this perspective, I’d say it is highly relevant and germane to the topic of sponsorship from large multinational oil companies who exercise obscene amounts of economic and political power all over the world. To say EWB should not actively factor in and address climate change, through our overarching mandate to eliminate rural poverty, is short sighted and completely inconsistent as an organization that prides itself in the understanding of systems and root causes. The limits of our scope of work should not be taken equally as the limits of our understanding. This is the whole point behind being able to think on a systems level while influencing key aspects in a targeted way.

Without considering the long term effects and influence on global systems of politics, economics, trade, and agriculture brought on by climate change we may, effectively, be building castles in the sand that will be washed away by the incoming tide (literally as well as figuratively!). The great work EWB is doing in Africa needs to be done with this in mind otherwise we’ll be helping Dorothy only to have her grandchildren suffer an even worse future down the road. (This is also to say nothing of resource consumption, land and water scarcity, and many other issues that absolutely must be factored into EWB’s long-term development strategy and modeling both in Africa and at home in Canada. Where does all this development ultimately lead? Where is all the energy and resources coming from? Who decides who gets what? And at the absolute core of the issue: What, if anything, are we as Canadians willing to sacrifice in the quality of our lives in order to raise that of someone else’s?)

As was also mentioned, there was an embarrassing and abhorrent lack of discussion related to these issues during the recent conference. Maybe it just hit too close to home. I believe it is our categorical imperative to consider these questions and to build them into all of our discussions and analysis, and by way of suggestions to move beyond impassioned discussions that ultimately lead nowhere but the forgotten corners of myEWB, I’ll offer the following:

-       EWB must adopt a strong, clear, and morally consistence stance on climate change and resource development that can be used to frame future discussions regarding sponsorship and how our programs and venture strategies operate both in Canada and in Africa.

-       We should be actively increasing our understanding of climate change and its impact on development and endeavouring to bring this constraint into all of our conversations, root causes analysis and systems models. To this end, I suggest a significant focus on this topic at next year’s conference.

-       We also must do a better job of tracking our organizational footprint for things like conference and be proactively looking to reduce our carbon emissions and offset our overhead activities. Being a non-profit does not give us a carte blanche to operate in isolation of these realities.

Engagement is the Issue – Despite claims to the contrary, disengagement is not the way forward. Nor is obsequious and misleading pandering to obviously self-serving corporate interests. I believe that we have to actively do something, (namely, engagement), to have a positive inlfuence on companies such as Statoil and Chevron, (leaving the question of receiving donations aside for the moment). The questions are: What does this engagement actually look like? and What are we actually trying to achieve with it? Sitting around grinding our teeth, while they deliver their mendacious propaganda is not engagement, nor is grilling the poor sap sitting at their sponsorship booth during conference about their CSR policies. If we are serious about changing the way these companies operate and actually seeing some results, we need to put a lot more effort and resources into understanding this system and making a calculated use of our limited resources. I do see this as a good use of EWB’s time and a potentially crucial leverage point for creating long lasting change, both at home and in Africa, but it’s not without its costs in terms of time and resources.

To the question of whether accepting significant donations from these companies limits our ability to be highly critical of them and significantly raises our moral culpability, the idealist in me says clearly yes. At the same time, the pragmatist in me cannot accept just standing idly by and believes that being at the table is preferable to watching from the sidelines. I also believe we can mitigate the risks inherent with this approach if we’re exceedingly clear in our purpose and objectives, but it's clearly a double-edged sword. [The alternative of total disengagement also may not be as morally sound as it first appears: from a (purely utilitarian perspective) ignoring them could lead to worse results than becoming involved. It also opens the way to an “activist paradox”, whereby the greater the moral clarity we achieved, the harder it becomes to be morally consistent in our actions. This isn’t an excuse to say it’s too hard to maintain this clarity so we should just jump on the gravy train, we still have to move forward extremely carefully and constantly reassess where we’re going with conversation such as this one.]

I believe that companies like Statoil and their employees are capable of seeing the big picture and are willing and able to improve, but we also have to be realistic about what sort of change we can affect and how long it will take. The oil sands development is about as sustainable as a house on fire at this point and though our ultimate influence may be limited, I see us putting a sincere effort into this as the best way forward. I agree we should also continue to diversify our funding sources and push for as much independence as possible. Finally, I’d say we need to live within our means and if that entails having conference in Toronto every year at a modest venue I think that most people would learn to be accepting of this.

Here are a few suggestions on how we might do a better job at this engagement:

-      Establish meaningful metrics and benchmarks for tracking engagement and understanding the effect we are able to have on companies. Set goals to track this progress and hold ourselves accountable for delivering tangible results. If we are not seeing significant progress or feel we are compromising too much on our values, then we need to be able to back out of the relationship.

-      Clarify our aims in Invested Partnerships and put these on the table at the beginning of the negotiations. (I imagine this is already being done, but the process could use more transparency)

-      Continue to diversify our funding sources and give much lower priority to morally reprehensible partners despite what they are offering.

-      Take on personal responsibility for understanding how EWB is funded, how events like conferences are financed and challenge ourselves to connect the dots between things like development, Big Oil and Climate Change.

-      Keep this discussion going throughout the year between conferences and forge a path forward despite the intense challenges.

Thanks for reading; I hope this has added something.

Kevin Hanson, Jan 24, 2013 - 8:47 PM EST

Hi Jonathan, thanks very much for your contribution to this discussion, and for the multi-sided, constructive and respectful approach you’ve taken to addressing these issues.

So I think the area where I previously left myself open to criticism the most was on the climate change portion so allow me to re-phrase and clarify:

I agree fully that climate change is a serious long term issue that has an unavoidable impact on all sorts of issues, including but not limited to our future standard of living here in Canada, along with the work EWB does in Africa. As just one example, I recall a Q&A conversation some years back at the EWB House with Parker Mitchell where the long term challenges of Burkina Faso were being discussed. Due to a number of factors (climate change among them), Burkina Faso is getting progressively less rainfall with each passing year, leading to the possibility that all the work EWB has done in that country to try and build up the agricultural sector may be moot if changing weather patterns make Burkina Faso as a country fundamentally non-viable agriculturally. So absolutely climate change is a long term systemic issue that needs to get incorporated into the decision making process of the organization.

In commenting previously, my mention of non-alignment between climate change and EWB had more to do with internal resource allocations for EWB as an organization. Over the years there have been all sorts of proposals for which areas of focus EWB ‘should’ be looking at, including but not limited to climate change, Fair Trade / ethical purchasing, engineering education in Africa, mining accountability and First Nations / northern poverty in Canada. Every one of these is an important issue deserving of attention that some segment of the EWB population feels passionately about, so why have some of these moved forward and flourished, while others have languished?

My feeling on this is that it is not enough to simply stand up and proclaim an issue to be of critical importance. If EWB is to direct resources (human or financial) towards solving that issue, then there must be a clear path forward on how EWB can position itself to create tangible, sustainable change in this area. Without such a plan, then we’re reduced to, as Jonathan put it, “impassioned discussions that ultimately lead nowhere but the forgotten corners of MyEWB”. I believe this is what is missing on the climate change discussion, in that no one (at least not yet) has put forth a proposal for how EWB can ‘punch above its weight’ in working to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions on a systemic level.

One of the things I like about EWB’s new venture model is that it offers a process for moving forward with initiatives like this. As such, for the people who believe climate change and CO2 emissions reductions should be something EWB actively works on, I would challenge you to come up with a venture proposal for next year’s Conference on what that would look like. What is the specific role EWB can play in this area? What resources would be needed and where do those come from? What are the potential benefits and risks? What is the opportunity for change over what time period? I think there are a lot of people within EWB who would be very interested in seeing what this looks like, and it can then stand and be critiqued against all the other proposals that are competing for EWB resources.

 

On the topic of industry partnership and engagement, I agree with the portrayal of this issue as being a fundamental tension between pragmatism vs. idealism (or engagement vs. protest to put it another way). I know MANY people within EWB on both sides of that fence, so as previously stated, 100% agreement will not be possible here. On taking corporate money, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we go around forsaking our values by blindly taking money from any company that crosses our path in the name of the almighty dollar. Neither though do I see any value in shooting ourselves in the foot and burning all sorts of bridges with people in industry by taking an uncompromising, symbolic, anti-oil stance that in and of itself will do nothing to stop global temperatures from rising.  As an organization that prides itself on systemic change, I think we can do better than that.

Regarding Conference funding and corporate sponsorships, again speaking as the person who has spent the last year working very hard to make this Conference financially sustainable, I can give assurances that there is no magic bullet to making this Conference less expensive. This was already a pretty frugal Conference in many ways (no catered breakfasts again this year), and for every expense that we tried to cut there were clear trade-offs in terms of the size, quality, logistics and content of this Conference that had to be considered. I’m happy to have an offline line-by-line discussion of the Conference budget for anyone who’s interested in that level of budget planning detail. I don’t think the goal of eliminating all corporate sponsorship of this Conference is either achievable or desirable, since there are all sorts of progressive, sustainable companies whose relationships we value that we want at this Conference. I think we are already at the point of not needing to rely on the revenue from under-performing companies from a social and environmental perspective. Pick any two sponsors from this year’s Conference and we could have managed without them with no impact on Conference quality from a financial point of view.

On the process for corporate engagement, Jonathan I agree with all of your points, and I would add the following comments:

  • Improved progress over time is I think a key factor in selecting companies (aka a willingness to change). Thus a poor prior track record in CSR shouldn’t automatically disqualify them if they have learned from failure and are on an upwards trajectory going forward.
  • A transparent, pro-active approach to selecting criteria for screening potential partners is definitely desirable, since it still seems rather reactionary to me at the moment.

Thanks!

Cameron Rout, Jan 25, 2013 - 12:08 PM EST

This is not a new issue. Environmentally conscious engineers have been  trying to turn ewb into an environmental NGO since 2003 (as far as I can remember). But, alas, this is not what EWB does.

We don't "do" climate change, we don't "do" rainforest preservation, we don't "do" cancer researach, we don't "do" gun control, we don't "do"... *insert emotionally charged cause here*.

What we DO do, is represent Engineering in Canada and drive global systemic change for the reduction of extreme poverty.  If you hope to achieve that, you'd better get friendly with oil and gas, because that's where over 50,000 of Canada's engineers are currently working. This is a very important industry to EWB because we represent them and they represent us. So be prepared, Oil and Gas is going to continually surprise you with their underwhelming engagement, because they are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Be patient, engage them slowly, be nice to us oil and gas engineers.

This is what many Canadian engineers (like me) do. We build pipelines, we mine Tar Sands, we protect communities, we make sure hydrogen suphide doesn't get in your drinking water, we produce millions of barrels a day of the highly flammable black stuff. This is your community, and it is one thing to get your community to support systemic change for poverty reduction and it is ENTIRELY another to get them to support climate change. 

This is simply Not. That. N. G. O.

Filzah Nasir, Jan 25, 2013 - 12:50 PM EST

Kevin, I am not sure I agree with you on the idea that the burden of EWB addressing climate change should rest on members coming up with ventures. From the direction of the conversation earlier, the consensus seems to be that EWB needs to address climate change not as a separate issue, but one that is linked to development. EWB as an organization does not deal with climate change or reduction of greenhouse gases. And maybe that's fine because it's not in our mandate. But we can't continue to ignore the effects of climate change in the African commmunities we work in. These effects need to be factored into the decisions we make about development moving forward. And as we do that, we have to acknowledge that some of those effects are caused by the companies we associate with. This doesn't necessarily mean that we stop engaging with them, but we have to remember that climate change disproportionately affects Africa, and that these companies are hurting Dorothy.

Rob, I want to thank you for starting this conversation and everyone who is engaging in the dialogue. But I am wondering whether we are moving anywhere at this point. Rob and Jonathan laid out some concrete next steps that will allow us as an organization to address the concerns in this conversation. I am now waiting for someone involved in the planning of Conference 2013, or even someone at National Office to acknowledge that this conversation has been heard and that we are working towards changing the source of discontent.

Perhaps its unfair of me to expect someone from National Office to take the time to do that, but I am not sure what other role I can play in this discussion. Between conferences, are there actionable steps that we as members can take to address possible concerns with the organization besides a post on myEWB? As has been pointed out, these forgotten discussions seem to go nowhere and leave a lot of frustrated members. 

Paul Cescon, Feb 6, 2013 - 2:08 PM EST

As a partial response to some of the themes in this discussion/conversation, I'd encourage you to check out a recent post on developing a partnership engagement policy: http://my.ewb.ca/posts/96726/


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