Over the past year, we have seen people and organisations come together in new, innovative and inspiring ways against a seismic, global challenge not seen in a generation, the COVID-19 pandemic. Our news feeds are filled with heartfelt examples of human beings helping one another, increased community engagement and volunteerism, and new types of partnership. They are also filled with heartbreaking examples of the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the lives, livelihoods, and learning of hundreds of millions of people.
It is impossible to ignore the stark reality that this impact has been highly uneven, as a result of deep-seated structural and systemic inequalities in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, income, and type of work.
We know that future pandemics are likely to occur, alongside other systemic shocks and sudden-onset disasters resulting from the climate emergency, inequality, and failures in our health, food, energy, and economic systems. And, we know it will be impossible to prepare for, respond to, or build resilience against these shocks and disasters, especially for the most vulnerable households and communities, without new models of collective action and collaboration between governments, business, and civil society organisations.
What lessons can we learn from collective action that has occurred during the pandemic? What makes some collaborative initiatives more successful and transformative than others? What role can, and should, the business sector play? These are questions that require a concerted focus in the coming months and years. A new report, produced by Business Fights Poverty in partnership with the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, looks at lessons learned from one national-level collaborative platform that was established within days of WHO declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic – The National Business Compact on Coronavirus in Kenya (NBCC).
Coalitions with active business leadership or engagement generally fall into four broad structural ‘types’. In addition to the formation of new coalitions that are innovative, agile, and targeted at addressing a specific emergency or challenge, like the NBCC, there are established business leadership coalitions that are focused on scaling inclusive and sustainable development more broadly; traditional, representative business organisations (such as Chambers of Commerce or trade associations) that mobilise their members to work together in times of crisis or to address specific sustainability issues; and long-term, multi-stakeholder platforms, usually focused on addressing a specific, systemic challenge, such as GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, to name just two. The latter three types of coalitions have important roles to play, but with COVID-19, this new type of partnership really came into its own: managing to mobilise a rapid, cross-sector response in a matter of days.
As Dave Prescott, Creative Director at The Partnering Initiative, said during an online discussion hosted by Business Fights Poverty, “COVID-19 provided a blueprint for how to do things differently”. In my mind, the NBCC took that blueprint and ran with it.
Established at a rapid pace, the NBCC built on existing relationships and trust, worked in alignment with government priorities, and harnessed core business competencies alongside public, philanthropic, and donor funding. Whilst working nationally, they ensured that inter-governmental actors such as the UN and international donors were involved, and crucially, the private sector was a major player, both mobilising and convening others as well as making ambitious public commitments.
One of the key elements of the NBCC’s set-up was its fluid structure and lean governance model. When faced with the rapidly moving and changing context of a global pandemic, the coalition was able to adapt and pivot to emerging needs. It was also able to manage both funds, fundraising, and in-kind donations, and then shifted to include logistics, public health announcements, and service delivery. It was an excellent example of an adaptive model of systems leadership.
The NBCC mobilised something new, novel, and due to the lack of a formal entity, everyone felt ownership and part of its success. Instead of talking about what its members were doing individually, the NBCC mobilised collective on-the-ground action. Individual and institutional leaders came together to collaborate. They developed an adaptive framework that, I believe, can be harnessed for future rapid onset crises, and perhaps even some of the systemic challenges our society and planet face. The model that was developed and some of the lessons learned are worthy of review, analysis, and application more broadly.