BFP: What do you do?
PD: I am a Research Fellow in the Private Sector and Markets programme at the (ODI). Whereas ODI’s focus has historically been on “traditional” development, working mainly with donors and other large-scale funders, our team concentrates specifically on the private sector and its relevance to the development agenda.
The Private Sector and Markets programme is broadly divided into 3 work streams. First, policy and regulatory issues (for example, looking at how emerging market governments can encourage private sector development whilst ensuring that the private sector generates as much benefit as possible to the development agenda). A second stream considers how donors and governments can support private sector development in developing countries. And third, the corporate engagement stream, which looks at how corporate activity contributes to development and how this impact can be enhanced.
My focus is on this third area. I deal largely with multinational companies; this group includes not only the very large multinationals such as BP and Heineken, but also the bigger regional multinationals such as MTN. My objective is to work with those companies that are engaged, as part of their core business, in many activities that could be termed “development”, and to find ways in which the development community can engage productively with these businesses.
As part of my work, I focus on the various tools that have been developed in the past decade and a half which seek to optimise the private sector’s contribution to development, and to try to work out whether these tools are effective. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, for example, has been very successful, yet it addresses only a small part of the corporate impact on development. Are ideas like EITI++ worth pursuing, or do we need to look for other models to use?
In particular, I think that the work that John Ruggie has done to develop the ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework for managing business and human rights is extremely interesting. I want to look at whether and how it might be possible to apply this framework more broadly. I also want to look the role of the UN Global Compact: how can it help develop a more strategic engagement between UN agencies and the corporate sector.
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
PD: Although I have been in my position for less than two months, I am excited about the opportunity to influence the agenda through my work for an influential and respected policy think-tank such as ODI. Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot at the operational end with both companies and donor agencies. My role at ODI offers me the possibility to bring that experience to bear at a policy level.
BFP: What has been your greatest challenge?
PD: It is a huge challenge to find ways to describe something that seems so obvious to one party, to another for whom it is less so, in terms that party can relate to and understand. This is more than a language problem – it relates to the very different world views often held by two parties who want to try and collaborate on an area where they believe there could be mutual interest and benefit, but whose approaches differ so much that the common ground is not visible to them. Finding ways to improve mutual understanding and help them see things in a different light can be very difficult.
BFP: What advice can you give others faced with a similar challenge?
PD: First of all, don’t be judgmental – the mere fact that someone sounds like they want something different from you does not make them wrong. Second, take your time and listen to people carefully to understand exactly what they need. You need to build trust between parties – once people trust that you are not judging them and that you will really listen, they will open up and talk more freely about their real objectives. I think of this process as “conversational triangulation” – you need to navigate a course between parties through your communication with them, the way a ship navigates using known points of reference.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
PD: There’s a lot of pressure on people to plan their careers in minute detail. The world doesn’t work like that though, and I’ve always been more organic in the choices I’ve made. Always try to do things that are challenging, and don’t be scared of challenging the status quo. You’ll find many people working in this space who are square pegs in round holes – and happily so. It doesn’t matter how you get to where you want to be. What matters is that you do something that you enjoy – if you enjoy what you’re doing, you are bound to be good at it and progress and succeed. In this area where two worlds overlap (business and development) I think it is also important to be flexible in your thinking and open to different points of view.
BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?
PD: A community like this gives you a chance to find out what you don’t know – and what you didn’t even know you don’t know! There is also a lot of value in being able to bounce ideas around and get different perspectives from people who share your interest and may have faced similar challenges. It is always reassuring to know that there are others who are trying to push a rock up the same hill.
Thank you to Peter Davis for taking the time to do this interview.
Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.