Business Fights Poverty convened an online discussion on 14 May 2020 to examine how business can build purposeful collaborations to support the resilience and recovery of those most vulnerable to COVID-19. What examples of business best practice are available, and what practical actions could assist with the recovery and rebuilding better during and post COVID-19?
Who are vulnerable people, what is recovery and why is rebuilding so important?
Millions of people are enduring a devastating impact to their lives, livelihoods and learning opportunities due to the pandemic. Among them, vulnerable groups, such as informal workers, women, black people and other ethnic minorities, and those with underlying medical conditions, have been particularly hit. At the same time, we were reminded in our online discussion that the COVID-19 crisis also revealed unexpected vulnerabilities. For instance, many people are currently at risk of going back to poverty as job losses mount around the world. Also, vulnerabilities in health care systems and the surge in domestic violence have caught even rich countries unprepared. The scale of the impact has caused many to question how we can rethink social safety nets as well as health, energy and food systems to be more resilient to future shocks
What are proactive successful businesses doing now more than two months into the crisis?
Three key approaches were cited by participants during the discussion as being successful against COVID-19: putting people first, committing to a wider social purpose, and supporting value chains. Employees, local communities and vulnerable groups have been rightly prioritised by companies in their immediate response to the crisis. In addition, some businesses have used their services and platforms to reach out directly to those who are especially vulnerable.
“In the short-term, putting people first - employees as well as local communities and other key stakeholder groups - is obviously essential, as is focussing on safe business continuity.” - Ruth Thomas, World Business Council for Sustainable Development
Among the many positive actions listed by panellists, we heard cases of companies providing clean water to communities, transforming their facilities into field hospitals and donating protective personal equipment (PPE) to essential workers. Actions to support homeless people and refugees as well as businesses building closer links with health providers were mentioned too. Moreover, large companies have invested in the support of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) within their value chains, which has been crucial to protect jobs and preserve learning opportunities in local communities.
“There has never been a more important time for all sectors with a stake in the success of MSMEs to move out of their siloes and take a more coordinated and strategic approach to tackling the barriers to growth by strengthening the underlying market system they operate in. By putting greater collaboration at the heart of their approach, all actors can help to lay the foundations for a more sustainable recovery and greater MSME resilience in the years ahead.”
- Richard Gilbert, Business Fights Poverty
What are high performing businesses doing to enable a successful recovery and rebuild?
Our panellists put forward a number of actions that businesses can take to recover and rebuild whilst supporting the most vulnerable. They referred to technological innovations in different fields which not only helped in the short to medium term, but could have lasting positive impacts.
“Technological innovation and new ways of working will be lasting legacies for better or worse of this ordeal and we need to bear that in mind in the context of the transition to recovery and a new reality. Companies are thinking out of the box to offer new products, services and solutions, including to be accessible and affordable to vulnerable populations.”
- Norine Kennedy, United States Council for International Business
For example, initiatives have been launched to bring down energy costs in poor households and to create support systems for those affected by domestic violence. Panellists agreed that inclusive technologies and virtual platforms will occupy an even larger space in our lives after COVID-19.
“If we waste the opportunity of this crisis to build back better, we will end up with the same unsustainable and inequitable systems we know. If we want to change these systems, be it food, energy or health, and make them truly regenerative and inclusive, we need to innovate together.” Christina Tewes-Gradl, Senior Adviser, Business Fights Poverty
In addition, there are opportunities for companies to double down on their partnerships. Working together with NGOs, local communities, governments, educators and other businesses proved to be instrumental during the pandemic. More than ever, we recognise that one business cannot do it alone. The discussion also highlighted the importance of thoughtful public-private collaborations for advocacy and encouragement of policies that are effective in supporting the most vulnerable.
“One key takeaway is to double down on local community-level partnerships and systems - how do we work together to make sure that local food systems, local health systems, local small business and financial systems and local energy systems are more inclusive and resilient? How does each company look at its physical or its digital footprint and try to be the very best partner it can be within these local ecosystems?”
- Jane Nelson, Harvard Kennedy School
Finally, many participants during the discussion asserted that this is the moment when businesses must seize the opportunity of change. Comments shared during the discussion revealed fundamental questions that have been raised about the relationship between well-being and economics and that companies are taking these questions seriously. Given the current high level of uncertainty, those companies who are leaning in and investing for the future of the communities where they operate are giving themselves the best chance of success. The pandemic has demonstrated that the health of local communities cannot be decoupled from the health of business itself.
Investing in rebuilding better means business has resilience for future shocks
Panellists during this discussion highlighted the importance of recognising that key issues, like inequality and climate change, have not gone away with the pandemic. On the contrary, it has become even more critical that resilience is fully incorporated into companies’ business models and corporate strategies.
In this respect, according to many participants in the discussion, investing to rebuild better means using innovation to include vulnerable groups in the economy and working harder to fix governance problems. Avoiding damage to trust remains paramount for businesses.
At Business Fights Poverty, we believe now is the moment to be ambitious and lay the foundations of a more inclusive and resilient future. In our new Rebuild Framework, we present companies with several actions on how to support the most vulnerable during the recovery and, crucially, on how to rebuild better.
As Zahid Torres-Rahman, Founder and CEO of Business Fights Poverty concluded at the end of the discussion: “To rebuild better, I believe we need to collaborate better - and I hope we can carry forward the momentum and good examples of the past couple of months, into a new way of driving forward change.”
We are grateful to our panellists for giving their time and expertise to further understanding of this key topic: