Successful Nigerian business-NGO partnerships rooted in collaboration

What’s the key ingredient to successful partnerships? York University Development Studies Professor Uwafiokun Idemudia reviewed existing research on an unorthodox union between a non-governmental organization (NGO) and an oil company with a history of spills in Nigeria. He found that collaboration was beneficial even when innate creative tensions exist, and to reach sustainable targets, the company needs to align its overall strategy with the goals of the partnership.

Uwafiokun Idemudia
Uwafiokun Idemudia

This work, published in Business Strategy and the Environment (2016), fills an important void. “Different strategies adopted by NGOs for working with businesses have remained relatively unexamined,” Idemudia explains. “Ultimately, we’re looking for the necessary tools or approaches for sustainable development in developing countries,” he adds.

This is Idemudia’s forté. He is a thought leader in the area of critical development studies, political economy and political ecology approaches to natural resource extraction in developing countries, business and development, issues of governance, transparency and accountability in resource-rich African countries.

Most business-NGO partnerships fraught with mistrust

Business–NGO partnerships are based around the idea that by combining complementary core competences, resources and skills and sharing associated risks, business would achieve something it otherwise would not have achieve alone.

This is easier said than done. In reality, these partnerships can be fraught with tensions and complexities that introduce instability and precariousness. The relationship is often characterized by hostility and mistrust.

Idemudia’s research focused on two unlikely partners in region of environmental crisis

In this research, Idemudia focused on the Niger Delta, home to the Nigerian oil and gas industry. This is a region of crisis. “Environmental degradation, loss of livelihood, lack of social infrastructure and a high rate of poverty have, over time, transformed the Niger Delta into a volatile region where conflict is now endemic,” he explains.

In this research, Idemudia focused on the Niger Delta, home to the Nigerian oil and gas industry. Map of Niger Delta region courtesy of Professor Etim, Department of Chemical Sciences, Federal University, Wukari, Nigeria.

In his study, Idemudia examined the partnership between the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the National Coalition on Gas Flaring and Oil Spills in the Niger Delta (NACGOND), a coalition of 20 civil society groups that seek to collectively address the issue of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta by advocating for changes in governmental and corporate policies.

SPDC does not have a good environmental track record in the region.  From 1976 to 2005, a total of 9,107 oil spills were recorded in the Niger Delta, and from 2003 to 2007, SPDC alone recorded 1,243 spills. Making matters worse, often 70 per cent of the oil spilt into the environment is not recovered. Contamination, in other words, is chronic, making this the world’s most long-term environmental disaster.

SPDC joined into partnership with NACGOND mainly to improve its reputation after the series of oil spills.

From 1976 to 2005, 9,107 oil spills were recorded in the Niger Delta, making this the world’s most long-term environmental disaster. Photo courtesy of Stakeholders Democracy Network.
From 1976 to 2005, 9,107 oil spills were recorded in the Niger Delta, making this the world’s most long-term environmental disaster. Photo: Ed Kashi/VII

Idemudia’s research had two main goals: To critically examine the challenges and opportunities confronting a business–NGO partnership in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria; and to consider the theoretical and practical implications for business–NGO interactions in the case of a coalition of NGOs within Africa.

Engagement at heart of NGO/oil company collaboration

In studying how the collaboration took shape, Idemudia realized that engagement was key. This took shape in many ways, for example:

  • Quarterly NACGOND–SPDC meetings where NACGOND raised issues of concern and, in response, SPDC addresses the concerns.
  • Joint investigation visits where SPDC invited NACGOND to participate as an external third party observer in its process.
  • Both parties invited each other to participate in various capacities in a number of their individual organizational activities related to environmental management issues in the Niger Delta. This ranged from advocacy and research projects by NACGOND to field visit invitations extended by SPDC to NACGOND to see remediated sites.

“The participation of both partners in each other’s projects gives these projects credibility and ensures adequate representation of stakeholder groups in such events,” Idemudia explains.

Interestingly, the working atmosphere in this partnership was described as respectful, constructive and even friendly. Although both parties admitted that they came to the table lacking trust for the other, over time they gradually came to build trust. There seemed to be a consensus that the interaction was mutually beneficial.

Lessons learned point to collaboration, alignment

Idemudia’s research brought to the fore a few main take-away messages to building successful partnerships:

  • Collaboration is good for both parties. SPDC regained its reputation after years of oil spills, and also benefited from the dense network and far reach of NACGOND within the Niger Delta. NACGOND, on the other hand, benefited in terms of internal capacity building, better access to management to voice community discontent and the credibility to attract future partners that can be supportive of its cause.
  • Creative tensions exist, but that’s okay. They function as drivers of partnerships by creating enabling conditions for such partnerships to emerge and be sustained. This tension can serve as a source of discipline for both partners, but especially for the NGO partners because it moderates their tactics. It enables NGOs to maintain a critical distance from their business partners and thus not lose credibility.
  • Business should align partnership goals with company’s overall goals. Businesses that go into such partnership with the goal of sustainable development (not just profit), need to align and integrate the partnership goals with the company’s overall strategic goals. This will maximize the benefits of the partnership.
  • The best partnerships are where NGOs work with a non-NGO. Idemudia realizes that most NGOs might not be willing to collaborate on a one-to-one basis with a corporation. However, he believes they might be willing to join a coalition that is in partnership with a corporation. He also presses for more research in this area.

The article, “Environmental Business–NGO Partnerships in Nigeria: Issues and Prospects,” was published in Business Strategy and the Environment (2016). For more information on Uwafiokun Idemudia, visit his faculty profile.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, watch the York Research Impact Story, see the infographic poster or visit the YouTube playlist.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,