Going About the Business of Creating Social Change

By Dr. Helene Gayle, President and CEO, Care

Going About the Business of Creating Social Change

There’s an inescapable buzz around the role of business in international development. Everywhere I go—from Bangladesh to East Africa, from the flurry of activity of the UNGA or CGI in New York to the WEF Annual meeting in Davos—it’s a topic that has risen to the very top of the development agenda.

To be clear, CARE welcomes this long-awaited energy and momentum. But business still has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to understanding the importance and specific needs of women—both as customers and as critical participants in supply chains.

We have long believed that markets can and should work for the poor. But we also understood that businesses, as the key driver of markets, need guidance on how they can achieve this and still continue to make profits that drive global economic growth.

We believe that collaborating with business adds an important component to our existing work, whether in financial inclusion, smallholder agriculture or promoting dignified working conditions for those below the poverty line around the world. It’s why we work with Mondelēz International and Cargill to ensure there are viable, sustainable cocoa value chains in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire that also represent a good deal for the cocoa-producing communities themselves. It is why we work with Barclays to link village savings and loan associations with the formal banking sector, and why we work with Walmart to empower workers in Bangladeshi garment factories.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one thing we’ve discovered is that the decision makers in most large companies know very little about the people ‘at the other end of the chain’. I’m often impressed by just how much brands know about their consumers—what TV channels they watch, where and when they shop, how many kids they’ve got, whether they are “soccer moms” or “white van drivers”. Yet most companies know very little about the people who produce the raw material for their products.

Often these are the people that get forgotten in the complicated web of global value chains—they’re the millions of smallholder farmers and garment workers whose work is vital to the end product.

Then there are the consumers corporations actually know little about—the great ‘untapped market at the bottom of the pyramid’. Not the ‘last mile’ ones, but those beyond the last mile. The ones who rarely have access to the goods and services they need or want. Yet understanding these people is becoming increasingly important in making supply chains sustainable and creating new markets. So it’s encouraging to see our partners and other companies rethinking how to engage with them. Our job at CARE is to make sure that this rethink truly benefits the poor.

And we’ve learned something even more fundamental: large companies do not yet fully understand the role of women. At CARE, we’re working to change that—all of our work has a specific emphasis on empowering women and girls.

Our ‘business case’ for this is pretty straightforward, and many other development organisations agree. No matter how you measure it, women and girls bear the brunt of poverty: 70 per cent of the world’s one billion poorest people are female; women work two-thirds of working hours, but earn only 10 percent of the world’s income.

But women also represent the greatest hope for lifting families and communities out of poverty. Numerous studies have shown that when women earn an income, they reinvest 90% of that income into their families, while men reinvest 30-40%.

Investing in women and girls isn’t just the right thing to do; it would be bad business not to do it.

For instance, our work in the dairy sector in Bangladesh has shown that women overwhelmingly care for cows, as well as carry out the majority of dairy-related activities. So any improvements to the dairy industry at the supply level, such as increased milk production or quality, depend heavily on women. Facilitating access to training, inputs, and veterinary care led to an exponential increase in milk production and helped women double their dairy-related income.

Business is starting to get this too. In the last year or two, business has started to show a genuine interest in learning more. Where once we used to talk about the importance of promoting women’s empowerment as a cross-cutting theme in our joint work, we’re now having serious conversations about how—not whether—reorganized supply chains can be transformative to gender equality. Why? Because it’s good for business, good for communities and it’s the right thing to do.

What is clear to us—and clear to the companies we work with—is that we’re not looking to companies to ‘play development’. We are looking for new solutions that deliver value, not just for shareholders, but for society as a whole.

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