What can CARE do for business?

The ‘interwoven’ nature of CARE’s approach to development

Last week I was in Islamabad, supporting the efforts of the CARE International team there, who have led a very successful set of engagements with the private sector to address social issues in Pakistan. In a country beset by a number of political and social tensions, CARE have decided to flip the traditional paradigm of not seeing what companies “can do for us” but, instead, what “CARE can do for business”. A bold move, and one which is so far paying dividends. 

Whilst you can still find ardent members of the international climbing fraternity hacking their way precariously through road blocks and using unofficial routes, to climb some of the country’s spectacular mountain ranges, it is common enough knowledge now that Pakistan’s tourism industry is far from booming.

Turn back only to 1999, and the company I worked for at the time was inundated organising month long youth development expeditions to Pakistan, in support of local projects and to trek the famous Hindu Kush – a breathtaking mountain range parting Central from South Asia, and crossing into Afghanistan. At the time, Pakistan was one of the company’s sought after destinations because of the sheer extraordinary sights available on such treks.

Today, Islamabad, the country’s national capital built in the 1960’s, is a safe and cosmopolitan city, attracting increasing commercial overseas interests. When I visited the city two years ago I was quickly and happily taken by the generosity and spirit, the tasty food and the rich culture that I found everywhere I looked. The same awaited me second time round, too.

Flying in for five days and moving about there is relatively easy, however due to the ongoing conflict in the country and the region as a whole, reaching some of CARE’s projects in other parts of Pakistan requires significant administration and security protocols. It will be a long time before my previous employer will be able to promote the Hindu Kush again to adventurous teenagers, and this of course is just another sad aspect of the type of “lock down” effect that generation long conflict is having in arguably one of the most exquisite – in all aspects – nations on earth.

And if the various security risks of travelling around Pakistan were not deterrent enough, then the fact that the country experiences devastating seasonal flooding and frequent enough earthquakes would likely make you pause for thought when booking your trip.

It is, however, from humanitarian relief events such as these that CARE Pakistan has charted its course, following the establishment of our team there in 2005, just months before the Kashmir Earthquake struck in October of the same year, measuring 7.6, killing over 75,000 people and displacing millions more. Since then, not only has our programming tried to access aid to those displaced by natural disasters, but at the same time we have moved into addressing resilience programmes, designed to equip communities and individuals with the means to support their livelihoods and their families for when the next seismic shift might occur.

This approach, interweaving relief interventions (providing shelter, food, medicine) with resilience interventions (providing access to finance to help start-up income generating activities, or offering micro-insurance to people previously cut out of this particular supply chain), naturally brought CARE more squarely into contact with the private sector and onto their agenda.

What then distinguished CARE Pakistan within this context was taking the position of not presenting a suite of ready-made projects for funding, but instead asking companies a different set of questions…

What were their company’s strategic business interests in Pakistan? What costs were they incurring in order to procure, manufacture, and distribute products and services? What risks were they assessing when advancing their own footprint across the vast demographic of Pakistan? (targeting as they were, and continue to do so, those communities residing at what had become known back then as the world’s ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ – the 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day.)

Turn the clock forward to this time last week, and many of these same companies, with whom CARE struck up a dialogue several years back, attended a ‘Round Table’ event, hosted by my colleagues in Islamabad, but also supported by no less than seven institutions from the donor community, each contributing to a collective aspiration about how, together, they best lift the many millions of Pakistani citizens currently displaced, vulnerable and earning minimal incomes, out of poverty.

Firing up the country’s local economy (from a mountain top restaurant)

CARE Pakistan is already a few years into a partnership with Telenor and Tameer Bank, for example, leveraging ICT technology to set up mobile banking structures in rural parts of the country. The initiative is called Easypaisa and currently Tameer services 800,000 clients through this “branchless banking” facility.

This was a partnership spawned out of a larger “cash for work” CARE managed programme, to help local women who were affected by the 2010 floods gain access to income and employment, through the maintenance of new roads. And it is a partnership that is now looking to move up to its next level. So how might the outreach for mobile banking get taken to scale? And just what other products do rural populations require?

These questions may not be new ones, however the fact that they are being asked by all sectors – private, public and civil society – and the fact that, in Islamabad last week at least, those at the table were prepared to answer them together, and make suggestions for solutions based not just over the longer term, but also involving how the core business operations of some of the country’s largest companies might need to change, stands out for me as progress.

Can such “progressive” fora bring about a scenario where all parties walk away content?

  • CARE helps access displaced communities to new markets, representing their best needs, and ensuring their rights are protected;
  • Companies, in the process, reduce expenditure (and therefore increase profits) by establishing sustainable market penetration;
  • Host Governments benefit from investing in such collaborations over the longer term, as their local economies grow as result; and
  • Bilateral Donors (represented last week by several international development departments, including the UK, Canada and Australia) also benefit through the multiplier effect that their investment to the process is leveraging – a “value for money” proposition that their own tax-payers, whose money they are using, are increasingly coming to see as a positive one.

Is this the sort of three-way “enlightened self interest” between sectors that we should be promoting elsewhere? I believe it is.

Cross-sector partnerships are not without their pitfalls. Every global entity such as CARE adopts a code of conduct around the types of industries with whom we would take an investment, or forge a partnership – and so, too, do large multinational corporations, and institutions such as the World Bank, when they consider their partners.

Partnerships take time, resources, senior leadership commitment and, depending on the outfit you happen to work for, there can be some clear “no-go” partners (or entire industries) and there can also be those where a more apportioned balance of risk is taken in terms of any negative impacts the partner might have on the ground vs. the amount of positive influence you might have over how that partner operates in any given context. It can be a tricky path to navigate and sustain such cross-sector initiatives and relationships, and we don’t yet hear as much as would be comforting in terms of the genuine stories of success. We need more pioneers, and more platforms to draw attention to the issues and to the opportunities.

Under these current circumstances, one key question for NGOs alike should be: “if an NGO is able to help reduce a risk (and therefore by association, a cost) that a company trying to reach a country’s poorest people will incur, and can do so in a way that empowers the very same poorest people that the NGO is seeking to serve, then shouldn’t this be the starting point for what we take as a cross-sector partnership?”

In many ways, we cannot say what might unfold – on any level – in the complex and fluid societal structures in countries like Pakistan, however what if this approach really does unlock some of the answers for the next generation of sectoral leaders and decision makers?

It may well yet be our best opportunity of making a real difference, and ensuring that places such as the Hindu Kush, and the surrounding serenity of this particular wonderful country, are once again open for business.

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