Building Successful Coalitions for Greater Social Impact

he Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was formed in July 2013 to raise safety levels in the ready-made garment industry. In that time it has inspected over 600 factories and trained over a million workers with measurable outcomes. It closed unsafe factories and is leading remediation of many more. It is collaborating with partners to increase government capacity and has provided access to tested and approved safety equipment, while lowering costs to owners. This success can be attributed to forming the Alliance under several key principles for success that should be applied to any initiative designed for collective impact.

Spring 2013: I landed in New York early in the morning to meet with North American apparel buyers and retailers. After several incidences of garment factories in Bangladesh going up in flames and killing hundreds, the Rana Plaza factory had collapsed due to poor construction, killing thousands more. Civil society was outraged and Western companies took the brunt of the criticism, even if a flawed Bangladeshi inspection and enforcement regime might be at the core of the problem.

No matter. Western companies had a complex problem on their hands. They liked doing business in Bangladesh because of the high quality of goods at low prices. Their reputations, however, were at severe risk by staying in Bangladesh as more factories would certainly have problems and the safety issues were extensive. But pulling out would be met with more criticism for abandoning the country and the only means for many women (who make up 80 percent of garment workers) to support their families and learn new skills. The cost of fixing the safety issues might be astronomical and some factory owners could be resistant to change. The Bangladeshi government did not posses the capacity, will or means to fix the issues, and the U.S. government was imposing trade sanctions. Finally, international unions were eyeing this as an opportunity to organize workers to make demands on wages and other labor issues around the world and had backing on Capitol Hill.

The situation was, no doubt, complex. However, it also served as time for Western corporations to demonstrate their values and the importance of investing in the communities in which they operate.

When I arrived at my first meeting in New York, I sat down at a long conference table amongst my peers from at least 15 major retail and apparel manufacturing companies, including Walmart, Gap, Li & Fung, the Children’s Place and others. I was representing Target as its VP of global affairs. The goal of the discussions was to determine how Western corporations should respond and assess what action we could take to begin improving the standards of safety in Bangladesh apparel factories. Several of these companies had just returned from Europe, where they had failed to reach an agreement with a safety accord that was forming between mostly European retailers and international trade unions. While legal aspects of the accord were troublesome for North American companies, it was the potential for misalignment of goals, strategies and priorities that would also contribute to formation of an alternative alliance.

Any successful coalition seeking to make true impact must have clear alignment on its goal and strategies. While a grand coalition between governments, factory owners, NGOs, buyers and retailers first seemed to be the easiest and quickest approach, the relevant parties were ultimately guided by different interests, needs and priorities. Consequently, that morning in New York only retailers and buyers (and their trade associations) were invited to attend. While there was recognition that others would be important partners, it was imperative to first determine whether this group of historic competitors could align their own interests and needs.

After much discussion and debate, the group settled on one clear goal that all could support: meaningfully raise the level of safety in Bangladeshi ready-made garment factories . . . nothing more, nothing less. This commitment and clarity of purpose has served the Alliance well over the last two years as it accomplished key milestones in record time. Agreement was also reached on the core strategies that would support the goal, from conducting immediate inspections, transparency, worker training, remediation and capacity building. While others sectors have tried to push the Alliance to address additional issues like supporting hospitals, increasing minimum wages and forming unions, the Alliance has stayed laser-focused on its goal.

In addition to aligning goals and strategies, it is important that coalition members agree to success measures. In subsequent meetings the Alliance members agreed to a number of key performance indicators to measure progress towards its goal. This has allowed the Alliance to know what is working well and quickly pivot tactics where more attention might be needed. Also, each coalition member and other stakeholders can review progress and hold the coalition accountable, increasing the likelihood of success.

While it is important to build the coalition among parties with aligned interests, it is also important to form strong partnerships with other entities having related or compatible interests key to solving the issue at hand. In Bangladesh, the Alliance has formed strong partnerships with the US, European and Bangladeshi governments, NGOs, trade associations and local labor leaders. A plan was developed early on to coordinate and participate in activities that would maximize the end result. These additional parties have enhanced the discussion by bringing new ideas, challenging assumptions, and helping implement solutions. For example, an Alliance partnership with the NGO Phulki, led to creation of a help line that is a reliable, responsive channel through which workers can report imminent risks to health and safety.

Open and transparent communications between all coalition members is also imperative. Often times, coalitions break down when one or several members feel out of the loop or are missing information. This becomes especially difficult with large coalitions having many members. Early on, some Alliance members expressed frustration over a perceived lack of information sharing. Knowing this could lead to false assumptions, misplaced accusations and other problems, the Alliance quickly created several communications vehicles that ranged from regular one on one calls with members, to monthly e-updates and regular all member meetings where member input could be gathered and questions asked. This has resulted in continued alignment within the coalition and an absence of infighting often experienced by other coalitions.

Finally, it is important that coalitions build a strong organizational infrastructure to support its efforts and members. While coalition members will have the best intentions to devote the time necessary to make a coalition work, other distractions come easily. At an early Alliance Board meeting in Chicago, we agreed to put an organization in place to coordinate all aspects of the initiative – everything from hiring the right staff with the right expertise to developing a communications strategy and managing member relationships. The Alliance looked at many possibilities and angles, but ultimately decided on a structure that allowed a presence in Bangladesh so we could truly have a local presence, as well as one based in Washington, D.C. to appropriately represent the interests of our North American coalition. Many unexpected issues arise in the course of carrying out a coalition’s purpose and details can be crucial. The Alliance has successfully addressed these by having a strong infrastructure to run the coalition day-to-day.

Without tight alignment, a coalition approach is problematic. Indeed, coalitions with competing interests often leads to a slowdown in their ability to drive consensus and make progress, at best, and conflict and infighting leading to complete paralyses and dissolution of the coalition, at worst. The investment in solving large, complex issues and the dire need for solutions is too great to waste time with dysfunctional or ineffective coalitions.

Looking back over the last two years, it is clear that success in raising safety standards in Bangladesh has thus far stemmed from that morning in New York where we created the right coalition of partners with tight alignment around a goal and strategies. It has included agreement on measurements of success, finding the right partners to complement the work, open and transparent communication and a strong supporting organization. With these fundamentals, the Alliance and other like-minded coalitions can and will make real social impact for the betterment of all.