March 12, 2013; Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

Un Techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile), an NGO in Chile providing advocacy and homes for people living in poverty, is facing the question of whether or not a partner from the corporate world is acting out of charitable impulses or trying to silence a potential critic. Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company, has several mines active in the northern part of Chile. One, in the small town of Copiapó, is likely to attract as many as 45,000 new people by next year, including workers and their families. Given the town’s already-thin housing market, this could lead to the creation of new tenements. To address this, Barrick entered into a partnership with Un Techo para Chile in 2008 to build 125 new housing units, moving people out of the slums.

The mining company argues that this is good business: they are partnering with effective NGOs to help people so that when they move on to the next mine, their legacy as good corporate citizens will precede them. Many people in the area, including Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, are skeptical, arguing that it will be harder for Techo to speak out against the very mining company that has given it so much money.

The mining company’s methods require a lot of water in a region that is already in a serious drought. It is predicted that thousands of farmers will now abandon their farms and head for the cities to find work, only adding to the overcrowding and the growth of tenements. Will Techo be willing to lobby against expansion of these mines after it has accepted the donation? Is the NGO willing to bite the hand that feeds it? So far, we can find no indication that Techo is either attacking or defending the mining company.

These questions raised by this situation are not unique to Chile, and nonprofits and politicians in the U.S. inquire about such relationships on a regular basis. Many corporations attempt to bank goodwill in the community via actions that present a positive and philanthropic image that might counter any negative news that comes out later. Is taking a donation from someone or something who/that is partially responsible for a problem a nonprofit is trying to address akin to accepting “blood money?” Or, if the contribution is not restricted, is it simply wonderful irony to put such money to use by actively working toward one’s mission even if that mission thwarts the donor’s aims? –Rob Meiksins