Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic proliferation of NGOs and a series of highly publicised events that have put companies and NGOs at odds. The issues have included GM crops, animal testing, the environmental impact of particular activities and products, questions of intellectual property in areas such as pharmaceuticals, the social and cultural impact of international companies, and the role of businesses as investors in societies which are fragile and where the respect for human rights is imperfect.
Partly, these debates have their roots in globalisation. Globalisation is weakening the traditional power of governments to control events in their own territory. And this loss of control seems to affect individuals as well. There is a sense that the key decisions affecting an individual's life are taken by someone else. And many people believe that person is the chief executive of a global corporation.
Globalisation has certainly increased the scale and reach of companies.
Take BP. We have some 10 million customers every day. A third of them now are outside the boundaries of the developed world, and the proportion will increase as we grow. Our global reputation matters, and it's the same for many other sectors.
It is no wonder, given all these changes, that 30,000 international NGOs have been created within the past two decades.
And it is no wonder that some, though by no means all, of those NGOs turn their attention and fire on the corporate sector. We have to accept that attention, and even the fire. If we're going to succeed we have to be capable of listening, of understanding what is happening in society, and capable of arguing our case with anyone, at any time. So much of what we want to achieve cannot be delivered by any organisation working on its own. If globalisation marks the end of sovereignty for national governments it should equally end any sense of splendid isolation which exists in the corporate world.
The purpose of a company is to deliver shareholder value, and that is a long-term activity. The profits we will declare this quarter come from investments made 10 or 20 years ago, and 20 years from now we'll be declaring profits from the investments we are making today.
This means that we have a direct interest in the communities in which we work, and society as a whole. We couldn't thrive in a society that was collapsing.
It is worth remembering that companies consist of citizens, human beings, people with families and children. Many of them are members of NGOs, in some cases very active members. They work for improvement, for progress.
And progress is possible. Step-by-step improvements are being achieved using advances in technology, the spread of best practice, partnerships with others and dialogue.
One key area where companies come under critical scrutiny is human rights.
We do choose to work in some areas where human rights fall short of western standards. The role of businesses in such circumstances is important, but limited. It is not to close our eyes, not to stay silent. Businesses can provide economic reinforcement to allow people to aspire and move in the direction of greater rights. They can engage and influence. They cannot dictate to governments.
In such places we work to our own standards, respecting the context set by the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Although that is not a legally binding document, it does provide a useful definition of the standards of a civilised society.
Co-operation on the ground
In many cases we've been able to make progress through work with NGOs.
With Care International, the World Bank and municipal government and local business we're working in Colombia to stimulate local economic development.
In Angola, we've worked with the Red Cross and with the Norwegian People's Aid organisation on the issue of removing landmines. In Vietnam, we have worked for 10 years with the US arm of Save the Children Fund in a sustainable nutrition programme. This programme, which we helped start, has now been replicated in 15 countries by more than 20 NGOs.
Companies and the managers who work for them can't ignore what is happening around them. Companies need partners, and those partners will often be NGOs.
Businesses can't afford to fall into the trap of seeing NGOs as automatic enemies. They are organisations with different roles and objectives. In many cases, however, the objectives are compatible.
But not always. The real challenge is to understand that mutual advantage is not always possible. Within a relationship there will be co-operation and conflict.
That sounds difficult, but the prize is worth having, because so much can be done if companies and NGOs work together. If you place the two in conflict, you achieve little beyond a war of words. That is the uncomfortable position in which companies find themselves when faced with critics and activists who do not want to engage. It is unproductive.
But if you put the two together, bringing different perspectives to bear on a single problem then you can open the door to a new world of possibilities.
Lord John Browne, chief executive of BP