Can We Really Take Big Business Seriously When it Comes to the SDGs?​

By Tim Bishop, Consulting and Global Partnerships Director, CARE

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.

True, there were different approaches adopted across our sector in terms of what to do with the private sector: some NGOs lobbied (and, of course, still do) to address corporate accountability and push for more transparency and social responsibility (on the part of large multi-national corporations, in particular); where others used “CSR” (corporate social responsibility) as a fashionable moniker under which they could form CSR “partnerships” with companies.

CSR, on the surface, was radical enough at the time – and indeed Business in the Community, where I spent a few years examining this, had been peddling CSR for decades. However, dig deeper and many of these CSR examples were sugar coating large companies giving donations to NGOs to look good in the public eye, and conform to a rising shareholder and employee demand for companies to have a “social and environmental conscience”.

So, Carol and Raja, instead, placed me in charge of forming a new team. A hybrid, if you will. We brought in communications and marketing expertise to manage our relationships with companies, alongside expertise more out of a classically trained NGO playbook: policy specialists; programme managers; and colleagues more exposed to what is still slightly oddly referred to as “field work”.

‘Field work’ in Lashio, Myanmar with Christine, Dec 2014

The plan was underway, and the objectives clear enough: create longer term relationships with large, global companies that 1.) address how they impact women and girls (eg via their procurement channels, their supply chains, their workplace practices, and so on) both positively and negatively and 2.) next, move the dial from companies addressing their negative impacts by simply writing cheques for CSR projects to, instead, them changing their policies and practices, making them more inclusive and equitable for women and girls.

Other NGO peers were experimenting along these lines, too, however my early memories are mainly of the steps we had to take inside of CARE to get the recognition for why this plan was worth buying into.

Straddling both the marketing (fundraising) and the programme departments, my role faced both ways and, with my programme colleagues, it took a while to convince them that our hybrid model would be successful. Regularly shot down in meetings (by my own team as well as by the wider policy experts, many of whom were livid we’d even entertain big business as a “partner”!) there were times when I doubted the longevity of the experiment.

I recall how we took on a newly refurbished office, shortly after we formed the team, which became known as “the fish bowl” as there was a glass wall on one side that everyone looked in through to see us. That didn’t help the pressure we felt and, putting our plan into something vaguely operational, under the critique and the literal gaze of others, wasn’t always plain sailing.

Widen the lens beyond CARE in the UK and, to compound the complexities of what we were doing, the sheer variety of ethical and moral and programmatic debates we became caught up in around the world, with other CARE teams, were multiple.

Which industries should we never work with? Why is it OK to work with a mining company but not a cigarette company? How can you trust any of these big companies anyway?

At one National Director’s Council meeting in Berlin in 2008, I remember presenting a balanced case to the group about a two year dialogue we’d had in France with an oil company. Most were on board with continuing the discussions, yet some were outraged at the idea of doing so, in spite of the reality that these two years had been spent looking into due diligence and the country specific programmatic opportunities (not the money) of engaging.

The USA rep at the table scoffed that we were wasting time discussing such a “terrible company”, and was then unmoved when challenged over the relationship his team had with a notable coffee franchise (who, that same week, were being campaigned against in the UK for patenting issues in Ethiopia).

Spending time with “VSLA’ groups in Uganda, Nov 2016. Gianluca and Joe from the WEE Team, deep in analysis.

Rightly or wrongly, it is hard for one person’s objectivity to fully compliment another’s. To many, that coffee chain were just as culpable for negative societal impacts as was the oil company. Imagine, then, the individual objectivities not just of those 14 National Directors but of all of the 7,000 staff CARE employs worldwide, in over 90 countries. A moral “bun-fight” of the highest order.

Perhaps, one might argue, a serious social commitment to an extractive industry company, over the 25 years their operations are up and running in a community, would yield more positive returns for that community, compared to a fly-by-night consumer goods company? Maybe social programmes on tobacco farms, because of heavier regulations, are improving smallholder livelihoods more than Fair Trade branded products? Does the banking sector, guilty as charged for numerous historic recessions, qualify as a better partner than a pharmaceutical company, given some of the skeletons in the closet of that particular industry in terms of access to medicine?

The debates will roll on. And on.

What we concluded, and what I still believe should sit at the heart of any NGO approach to business and markets work, is to have an over-arching system of how to partner, and how to design and deliver interventions on the back of that partnership.

Follow that system (adapting it, content-wise, for different industry groups who will have unique impacts on society) and then provide each of your teams around the world with a platform and a space to learn from each other and to explore specific, contextual scenarios.

Wind forward to 2019 and, on the eve of the UNGA jamboree in New York, where “private sector development” and “shared value” partnerships, and “triple-bottom line” parlance will no doubt be uttered, and I feel firmer than ever about two things:

Playing the long game with big business can bring dividends. The gains made against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in terms of bringing big business to the table have helped ensure this topic is further up the collective agenda than it ever was during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era. Add to that the increasing likelihood that, in the future, many of the currently voluntary codes of conduct and industry standards, brought in since the turn of the century, to improve policy and practice across the private sector, will become mandatory. That means from environmental regulations, social licenses to operate, business and human rights standards, the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles through to the more recent ILO treaty about sexual harassment in the workplace, there will be firmer conditions to which business will have to adhere.

This isn’t to say that the continued campaigning and lobbying done to hold big business, especially, to account isn’t critical. It is, more so than ever. But I believe we also need some NGOs to step up and work with those companies who do want to try new approaches and want to make a difference.

We all have to try harder to change. Whilst I remain overly skeptical (on most days of the week) about whether we can ever really trust a company not to have profit motives held up highest, over and above everything else (and I simply don’t buy the argument that “if they didn’t make money they’d be bankrupt and then this whole debate would be redundant, so they have to be able to first make a profit etc”) my gut tells me that, for all the hours put in by my CARE colleagues around the world, to move this work along, there’ve been inspiring bright spots where our persistence and our professionalism at sticking to the “system” of partnering (albeit overly time and resource intensive) has demonstrated our own “proof of concept” and demonstrated that it is possible to chip away at that ‘change’ mountain.

That said, these bright spots are still the exception to the norm, a drop in the ocean. And so it’s incumbent on NGOs and public sector entities to follow suit. “Walking the talk” (on issues of accountability, transparency, workplace conduct, supply chain management etc) is, at the very minimum, what we should all be doing, if we are ever to expect the corporate sector to do the same.

With team mates, Grace and Dana in Oct 2018, at a TUKLAS community event in the Philippines –

I’ve written many times on these pages about some of these CARE bright spots from our experiences of working with all kinds of businesses:

From back in 2008-2010, and designing with Allianz insurance products for 300,000 people in Tamil Nadu that met their needs and means; or during a similar period, with Barclays helping scale our Village Savings and Loans Association groups in Africa (which now maintain over 7 million users) and linking some of them to formal financial services, through bank accounts and digital credit products; or, in Pakistan, where we helped create a similar outreach for Tameer and Telenor in the form of a mobile banking innovation called Easypaisa.

Currently, many other large corporations, from a range of industries, remain in some form of collaboration with different parts of the CARE family:

Since 2011/2, for example, CARE has helped GSK invest hundreds of thousands of pounds of profit, made from their retail arm, to support rural mid-wifery schemes across Asia; in Sri Lanka we previously partnered DiageoHSBC and Cinnamon Hotels to support young people in vocational training, before pairing them with job opportunities; and, after several years examining the impacts of alcohol usage in Cambodia, and setting up Government backed Codes of Conduct for drinks companies and local outlet owners, we continue, today, to be working with several companies globally to look into the issue of gender based violence and the links with alcohol.

Next month my time with CARE will draw to a close, and I’m as much sad at the thought of stepping aside from these rich and eclectic experiences as I am excited at the prospect of continuing to stay close to these topics, from wherever I end up.

Our 2006 experiment stands as a small foray and learning experience into some of the most complicated, yet seismically important, issues of our time.

“Taking business seriously” is just one part of the equation, however. The rest, I fear, requires patience, persistence and commitments on behalf of us all.

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