The COVID-19 global pandemic is resulting in business, governments and civil society working together like never before. We are witnessing the mobilisation of national collaborations - such aKenya’s National Business Compact on Coronavirus - to accelerate local action and support government efforts to counter the pandemic.
On 30 April 2020, Business Fights Poverty convened an online discussion, which examined how business can help build national coalitions and collaborations to fight COVID-19. What is making these collaborations work, what lessons need to be learned, and how can these be replicated to make a greater impact?
What examples of national collaborative platforms to fight COVID-19 are there?
The participants shared many examples of national platforms, operating in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Zambia. In addition to these, we are seeing the mobilisation of regional initiatives such as AfroChampions, and global platforms such as the UN Global Compact.
Dave Prescott, Creative Director of the Partnering Initiative, observed that collaborative platforms tend to be focused on advocacy, resource coordination, and systemic transformation to aid global recovery. Within these three main roles, the private sector is providing invaluable support in areas as diverse as public health awareness campaigns; establishing new medical facilities; donating and distributing soaps and personal protective equipment (PPE), and building public handwashing stations; supporting diaspora migrant workers; training community health workers; alleviating economic hardship; helping build resilience in small businesses; increasing access to online medical care; collaborating on the development of COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment; and engaging with governments on public policy.
We are seeing unprecedented collaborations involving companies within and between sectors. Myriam Sidibe, Co-Founder Kenya National Business Compact and Founder, Brands on a Mission, provided an example from Kenya: “the National Business Compact on Coronavirus has the leading brands in hygiene working together, not competing. The main soap manufacturers along with other companies are putting their resources into a unified platform of communication. They bring together the best of advertising, media and branding to remind consumers that the preventive actions are a matter of life or death.”
“We have long had a saying in Africa ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. To respond to this crisis, collaboration is key. This doesn’t simply mean throwing some money at CSR teams and having a photo taken with our donations, it means genuine interaction and dialogue between Government, the Private Sector, and charitable organisations. If we’re smart, this collaboration will last long beyond this pandemic.”
Sam Abrahams, Chief Executive, First Aid Africa
Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, observed that coalitions tend to fall into three broad structural “types”. In addition to the formation of new coalitions that are innovative and agile, established coalitions on inclusive and sustainable development (such as the UN Global Compact) and more traditional business organisations (such as Chambers of Commerce) are mobilising their members to work together in new ways. These diverse coalitions are tackling the immediate crisis as well as working to build back better. As Dave Prescott, Creative Director, The Partnering Initiative, pointed out, “COVID-19 provides a blueprint for how to do things differently.”
Whilst remembering that “one size doesn’t fit all”, Jane Nelson identified four key lessons that seem to be common to many coalitions’ responses to COVID-19. They tend to build on existing relationships and/or platforms and coalitions and only build new initiatives where there is no existing infrastructure to meet a specific need. To maximise impact, coalitions focus on a few key and compelling national priorities and work in alignment with government priorities where possible. Whilst working nationally, coalitions are seeking to engage with inter-governmental actors such as the UN country coordinating offices,World Bank and other international donors.
National coalitions will inevitably face risks, many of which may be exacerbated by the need to work at speed to respond to the crisis. Unless coalitions are able to coordinate with other in-country initiatives, there is a risk that duplication will waste scarce resources, and may even detract from good work being done by acting in competition with one another.
As societies wrestle with finding the balance between protecting public health and reopening the economy there is a role for business in providing important information and insight to assist government decision-making on how to resume economic activities in a way that protects both employment and the welfare of employees.
Governance is also a particular risk, which can be mitigated by working within existing platforms, working in partnership with accountancy professionals, and utilising international guidelines such as The UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles. Steve Kenzie, Executive Director, UN Global Compact Network UK described these as “a truly universal, well-established public good that’s ready to go.” Marcelo Linguitte, Head of Strategic Partnerships, Projects and Resource Mobilization at the United Nations Global Compact Brazil, shared that the UN Global Compact’s Brazilian platform is developing a guideline on how organisations may strengthen compliance processes.
Opportunities and Best Practice
The speed and urgency of the response is resulting in new approaches to partnering that are agile, working across silos and embracing non-traditional thinking. Zahid Torres-Rahman referred to five factors that underpin effective partnerships, that will be critical in the current climate: “a compelling and shared why - a shared goal for the partnership; clarity about who needs to be around the table; a laser focus on what needs to be created, and by when; and a process - the how - that is based on authentic co-creation.” To be inclusive and effective, partnerships must listen to key stakeholders - especially the most vulnerable. As Stephen Gelb points out, “there is a need for joint ownership of policies - there’s a difference between ‘in consultation with’ vs ‘after consultation with.’”
As never before, COVID-19 has called business to place purpose before profit. According to Ali Kolahi, head of the Nafas Campaign Business Associations’ Liaison Committee, Nafas Platform Co-ordinators, the urgent action of Iranian businesses has increased their social capital in the community. Kolahi believes this is an asset that business “should not allow to wither once the pandemic is under control”, and that this new momentum must now begin to address other issues such as child poverty. Indeed, panellists agreed that national platforms can support transformational change, by helping to align the efforts of government, business (from multinational companies to small and medium sized enterprises) and grassroots initiatives to achieve a more sustainable and equitable future.
We are all trying to experiment with approaches and partnerships to address systems and supply chain issues and that’s what we can do on the back of the crisis to have a long-lasting impact. Engage with stakeholders and listen to their challenges, see where you can help, take a holistic view and look at the system, collaborate quickly and be decisive. Scale up what is working already as well as trying new things.
Sinead Duffy, Head of NGO Engagement, Bayer
How can these coalitions and collaborations be replicated rapidly?
Our panellists suggested that coalitions are most valuable where complementary skill sets combine to maximise impact wherever there is most vulnerability - for example for those living in Small Island Developing Countries, Least Developed Countries and Land-Locked Developing Countries, those with disabilities, those lacking access to livelihoods and healthcare, women and girls.
Our panellists felt that it is often better to “double down”on existing initiatives, rather than starting afresh. Coalitions can start to scale what is already working. Tanzin Shahid, CEO, YY Ventures recommended taking a frugal innovation approach, starting with the minimal solution that works and gradually improving it by bringing in more partners to the coalition.Assets and data generated during the crisis can be repurposed to tackle other pressing issues. Once the initial crisis abates, there will be a process of institutionalisation for coalitions that will look different across different contexts and geographies, broadening their membership and enhancing their governance processes.
To support this work, it will be essential to share best practice across international networks. Fora such as Business Fights Poverty, the Partnering Initiative and many others have already started to distill and share learning and best practice on national platforms, to support the vital work of businesses across the globe.
Call to Action
The rapid response of business in forming national platforms for action provides a source of much-needed inspiration and hope. All sectors have a role to play - from soap manufacturers to the marketing and communications industry, from agriculture to banking and finance, the garment sector, and beyond.
Business Fights Poverty has launched the Business and COVID-19 Response Centre to share global learning and support local action on COVID-19. Sign up here to receive a copy of our toolkit on building national coalitions when it is released. You can also join our community of practitioners and experts who are taking action, as well as sharing best practice examples through our constantly-expanding Action Mapping Tool.
Ware grateful to our panellists for giving their time and expertise to further understanding of this important topic:
Moderator: Katie Hyson, Director, Thought Leadership, Business Fights Poverty