I recently had the opportunity to interview Laurie Lee, the new CEO of CARE International UK. I asked him about CARE’s engagement with business, and his vision for the future. This is an edited version of our conversation. You can listen to the audio of the full interview below.
BFP: You Tweeted the other day about Banking on Change, your partnership with Barclays and Plan to increase access to basic financial services. It’s a project we’ve featured on Business Fights Poverty. Can you tell us more about your vision for partnering with business to achieve social impact?
LL: The role of business and the private sector is central to development. We are talking about reducing poverty in countries where there is not a lot of access to formal jobs. Helping poor people is about entrepreneurship and enabling them to make a living.
There are three ways in which working with business can help:
First, business helps us achieve scale – helping us reach many more poor people than we can on our own. If we can work with those businesses on how they interact with their many customers and suppliers then we can have a big impact.
Second, business can help us achieve sustainability. We want to achieve change that will continue helping people beyond our role as a charity. If we can make sure that we can help people in a way which is profitable and good business for these companies, then they eventually can take that on without our support.
And third, business can help drive innovation. There is a lot of capacity and ability to innovate in the private sector. Partnering with companies can help us challenge ourselves to be as innovative as possible in coming up with solutions to problems that we are addressing.
Banking on Change is a good example of the way we partner. The work that we’ve been specifically doing with Barclays began with scaling up what we call Village Savings and Loans Associations, whereby groups of people – usually mainly women – come together and support each other and save a little bit of income each month. At the end of the year they have an amount that can allow them to invest in a small business or pay for health or education.
That first phase, in the first few years, reached half a million people – mostly women. As we moved into the second phase we focused on expanding the impact of the programme by linking the individual Village Savings and Loans Associations, who would just save money in a box, with the formal financial sector – helping them get more and more benefits from savings, and eventually other financial services.
We’re now starting to work with Barclays, as well as lots of other banks, mobile phone providers, government regulators and other companies, to distil the lessons we and Barclays have learned from the programme – with the aim of bringing more and more people into formal financial services in a responsible way. We are encouraging companies, Governments and other organisations to sign up to a Charter of best practice principles.
BFP: What makes for a successful partnership with business – and what practical advice do you have for those individuals working in NGOs and in business who are looking at how to build an effective partnership?
LL: I think like any relationship it’s important that you get to know each other and it’s important that you have some kind of overlap in your values and what you are trying to achieve. At the same time, a big opportunity is that you also bring different, complementary things to the partnership.
I think it’s important to take the time checking those things in the beginning; the upfront investment in making sure that everyone is in agreement about why they are working together and what they are working towards is really crucial.
I think it’s also important always to be challenging each other to be innovative, to be ambitious, to meet the targets, and to be learning and adjusting as they go.
BFP: In the partnerships that CARE participates in, what is the specific value you bring to the partnership? If a business wants to partner with you, how can they go about it?
LL: I think one of the things that we bring, and that many business partners look to us for, is our deep understanding of the communities that they want to reach. CARE has worked for many decades with communities in the poorest parts of the world, taking the time to understand the underlying causes of poverty and vulnerability in those communities, and what the real needs are.
I think we also bring a challenge function: we are involved in pushing companies to be ambitious and helping them think about whether there are opportunities they’ve not thought of in terms of working with poor people as potential suppliers or customers.
We have worked with the private sector for a long time, and we have always seen the importance of the private sector’s role in development. So we have a good understanding of what the need, approaches and constraints of the private sector tend to be. I think that helps us get more quickly to a constructive partnership.
We have a very experienced team that manages our partnerships and can start a conversation with companies interested in any of our priority areas (such as women’s economic empowerment, food security, and sexual and reproductive health).
BFP: Every year we partner with LendwithCare.org – your microlending initiative where people can provide loans to small entrepreneurs in developing countries. Access to finance seems to be a strong theme of CARE’s work – why is that?
LL: I had been a lender with Lendwithcare.org for several years before I actually came to work for CARE and I do see it as a great way of supporting entrepreneurs and connecting people in the UK with the work that poor people are doing themselves every day to lift their families out of poverty.
At CARE, we see that ensuring families have access to finance and to a wide range of financial services, can change their ability to both cope with shocks and with the problems that happen in life, and to grab the opportunities and fulfil their potential.
A family is better able to get health care when it needs it, is better able to pay for schooling where that’s not free, and better able to invest in farming or other entrepreneurial activities. Access to finance is something that can touch every aspect of a family’s life.
BFP: Before becoming the CEO of CARE International UK, you were Africa Director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and prior to that head of International Trade at the UK’s Department for International Development, and before that adviser to the UK Prime Minister on development. Tell us a bit more about your personal journey, and what insights you picked up along the way that you will bring to your new role.
LL: I am excited about being CEO at CARE. It is an opportunity to look at different aspects of development work. I am looking forward to a job that brings me closer to implementation on the ground – something I did when I ran programmes in Afghanistan and South Africa for the British Government.
At the same time, I’m looking forward to drawing on the experience I had working on trade negotiations, working with Tony Blair on the 2005 G8 summit, and on policy issues in Africa for the Gates Foundation – to make sure that CARE has a bigger impact than just the work that we ourselves can implement on the ground, by engaging in policy discussions at the national and global level.
Having worked for a few different organisations, makes you realise that no one organization gets everything right and that no one organisation can achieve a big objective in development on their own. I think there are some great things that CARE is doing but there are some things that we can learn from others. And I have a big interest in making sure that we build partnerships with business and with the rest of the NGO sector, civil society, academia and the media.
BFP: The world is full of bad news right now – with conflict in the Middle East and Ebola in West Africa. Take any of these daunting challenges, and they seem too big for any one organisation to tackle alone. How can we work together to have the systemic, large-scale impact needed?
LL: I am really proud of the humanitarian work that CARE does. In the Philippines we responded with a focus on shelter – one of our areas of expertise. We are working with communities in several of the countries neighbouring Syria, receiving refugees and making sure that their various needs are looked after. And we are partnering with the DEC Appeal on the horrendous situation in Gaza.
There is a well-established approach among NGOs to partnering and complementing each other in a division of labour in a humanitarian space, and CARE focuses in particular on shelter, as well as water, sanitation and sexual and reproductive health.
In our business partnerships, we often also partner with other NGOs – sometimes to extend the scale of the partnership or to bring in complementary skills.
Of course, to have the biggest, most lasting change, requires us to work across the whole system. That might be about improving employment conditions in the clothing industry, or the way farmers are included in the supply chains in the cocoa industry, or the way – as I mentioned earlier – banks bring low-income customers into the formal sector. This requires engaging all the major players in those sectors – businesses, regulators, civil society. Our aim is to try and ensure that the changes and the approaches that we test out with companies, set new standards and can influence the standards of a sector as a whole.
BFP: Finally, can you share with us what you see as CARE’s priorities for the next 12 months, and how partnerships with organisations like Business Fights Poverty can play a role?
LL: Our mission is to end poverty and injustice and in the poor parts of the world. We are working towards that both through implementing programmes directly on the ground and by trying to achieve more systemic change through influencing the policy of companies and governments.
Obviously I am new in the role – I’ve been here less than two weeks – and so I am still really at the point of assessing the work that we are doing and how it can improve, and the biggest opportunities and challenges for CARE in the years ahead. But there is no doubt that we see partnership with businesses as a key part of our vision going forward.
I think that Business Fights Poverty plays a great role in encouraging people to think about the relationship between business and development and the role that different sectors can play. Business Fights Poverty provides a space for that conversation to be had and hopefully you can carry on encouraging people to think of new ways to engage business, new problems that business has a role in addressing, and knew business opportunities which can have a positive social impact. I think that’s a good role for you to play and hopefully a role we can also contribute to.