Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?


Gaza, May 2017 –

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating. 

True, there were different approaches adopted across our sector in terms of what to do with the private sector: some NGOs lobbied (and, of course, still do) to address corporate accountability and push for more transparency and social responsibility (on the part of large multi-national corporations, in particular); where others used “CSR” (corporate social responsibility) as a fashionable moniker under which they could form CSR “partnerships” with companies.

CSR, on the surface, was radical enough at the time – and indeed Business in the Community, where I spent a few years examining this, had been peddling CSR for decades. However, dig deeper and many of these CSR examples were sugar coating large companies giving donations to NGOs to look good in the public eye, and conform to a rising shareholder and employee demand for companies to have a “social and environmental conscience”.

So, Carol and Raja, instead, placed me in charge of forming a new team. A hybrid, if you will. We brought in communications and marketing expertise to manage our relationships with companies, alongside expertise more out of a classically trained NGO playbook: policy specialists; programme managers; and colleagues more exposed to what is still slightly oddly referred to as “field work”.

‘Field work’ in Lashio, Myanmar with Christine, Dec 2014

The plan was underway, and the objectives clear enough: create longer term relationships with large, global companies that 1.) address how they impact women and girls (eg via their procurement channels, their supply chains, their workplace practices, and so on) both positively and negatively and 2.) next, move the dial from companies addressing their negative impacts by simply writing cheques for CSR projects to, instead, them changing their policies and practices, making them more inclusive and equitable for women and girls. 

Other NGO peers were experimenting along these lines, too, however my early memories are mainly of the steps we had to take inside of CARE to get the recognition for why this plan was worth buying into.

Straddling both the marketing (fundraising) and the programme departments, my role faced both ways and, with my programme colleagues, it took a while to convince them that our hybrid model would be successful. Regularly shot down in meetings (by my own team as well as by the wider policy experts, many of whom were livid we’d even entertain big business as a “partner”!) there were times when I doubted the longevity of the experiment.

I recall how we took on a newly refurbished office, shortly after we formed the team, which became known as “the fish bowl” as there was a glass wall on one side that everyone looked in through to see us. That didn’t help the pressure we felt and, putting our plan into something vaguely operational, under the critique and the literal gaze of others, wasn’t always plain sailing.

Widen the lens beyond CARE in the UK and, to compound the complexities of what we were doing, the sheer variety of ethical and moral and programmatic debates we became caught up in around the world, with other CARE teams, were multiple.

Which industries should we never work with? Why is it OK to work with a mining company but not a cigarette company? How can you trust any of these big companies anyway?

At one National Director’s Council meeting in Berlin in 2008, I remember presenting a balanced case to the group about a two year dialogue we’d had in France with an oil company. Most were on board with continuing the discussions, yet some were outraged at the idea of doing so, in spite of the reality that these two years had been spent looking into due diligence and the country specific programmatic opportunities (not the money) of engaging.

The USA rep at the table scoffed that we were wasting time discussing such a “terrible company”, and was then unmoved when challenged over the relationship his team had with a notable coffee franchise (who, that same week, were being campaigned against in the UK for patenting issues in Ethiopia). 

Spending time with “VSLA’ groups in Uganda, Nov 2016. Gianluca and Joe from the WEE Team, deep in analysis.

Rightly or wrongly, it is hard for one person’s objectivity to fully compliment another’s. To many, that coffee chain were just as culpable for negative societal impacts as was the oil company. Imagine, then, the individual objectivities not just of those 14 National Directors but of all of the 7,000 staff CARE employs worldwide, in over 90 countries. A moral “bun-fight” of the highest order.

Perhaps, one might argue, a serious social commitment to an extractive industry company, over the 25 years their operations are up and running in a community, would yield more positive returns for that community, compared to a fly-by-night consumer goods company? Maybe social programmes on tobacco farms, because of heavier regulations, are improving smallholder livelihoods more than Fair Trade branded products? Does the banking sector, guilty as charged for numerous historic recessions, qualify as a better partner than a pharmaceutical company, given some of the skeletons in the closet of that particular industry in terms of access to medicine?

The debates will roll on. And on.

What we concluded, and what I still believe should sit at the heart of any NGO approach to business and markets work, is to have an over-arching system of how to partner, and how to design and deliver interventions on the back of that partnership.

Follow that system (adapting it, content-wise, for different industry groups who will have unique impacts on society) and then provide each of your teams around the world with a platform and a space to learn from each other and to explore specific, contextual scenarios.

Wind forward to 2019 and, on the eve of the UNGA jamboree in New York, where “private sector development” and “shared value” partnerships, and “triple-bottom line” parlance will no doubt be uttered, and I feel firmer than ever about two things:

Playing the long game with big business can bring dividends. The gains made against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in terms of bringing big business to the table have helped ensure this topic is further up the collective agenda than it ever was during the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era. Add to that the increasing likelihood that, in the future, many of the currently voluntary codes of conduct and industry standards, brought in since the turn of the century, to improve policy and practice across the private sector, will become mandatory. That means from environmental regulations, social licenses to operate, business and human rights standards, the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles through to the more recent ILO treaty about sexual harassment in the workplace, there will be firmer conditions to which business will have to adhere.

This isn’t to say that the continued campaigning and lobbying done to hold big business, especially, to account isn’t critical. It is, more so than ever. But I believe we also need some NGOs to step up and work with those companies who do want to try new approaches and want to make a difference.

We all have to try harder to change. Whilst I remain overly skeptical (on most days of the week) about whether we can ever really trust a company not to have profit motives held up highest, over and above everything else (and I simply don’t buy the argument that “if they didn’t make money they’d be bankrupt and then this whole debate would be redundant, so they have to be able to first make a profit etc”) my gut tells me that, for all the hours put in by my CARE colleagues around the world, to move this work along, there’ve been inspiring bright spots where our persistence and our professionalism at sticking to the “system” of partnering (albeit overly time and resource intensive) has demonstrated our own “proof of concept” and demonstrated that it is possible to chip away at that ‘change’ mountain.

That said, these bright spots are still the exception to the norm, a drop in the ocean. And so it’s incumbent on NGOs and public sector entities to follow suit. “Walking the talk” (on issues of accountability, transparency, workplace conduct, supply chain management etc) is, at the very minimum, what we should all be doing, if we are ever to expect the corporate sector to do the same.

With team mates, Grace and Dana in Oct 2018, at a TUKLAS community event in the Philippines –

I’ve written many times on these pages about some of these CARE bright spots from our experiences of working with all kinds of businesses:

From back in 2008-2010, and designing with Allianz insurance products for 300,000 people in Tamil Nadu that met their needs and means; or during a similar period, with Barclays helping scale our Village Savings and Loans Association groups in Africa (which now maintain over 7 million users) and linking some of them to formal financial services, through bank accounts and digital credit products; or, in Pakistan, where we helped create a similar outreach for Tameer and Telenor in the form of a mobile banking innovation called Easypaisa.

Currently, many other large corporations, from a range of industries, remain in some form of collaboration with different parts of the CARE family:

Since 2011/2, for example, CARE has helped GSK invest hundreds of thousands of pounds of profit, made from their retail arm, to support rural mid-wifery schemes across Asia; in Sri Lanka we previously partnered Diageo, HSBC and Cinnamon Hotels to support young people in vocational training, before pairing them with job opportunities; and, after several years examining the impacts of alcohol usage in Cambodia, and setting up Government backed Codes of Conduct for drinks companies and local outlet owners, we continue, today, to be working with several companies globally to look into the issue of gender based violence and the links with alcohol.

Next month my time with CARE will draw to a close, and I’m as much sad at the thought of stepping aside from these rich and eclectic experiences as I am excited at the prospect of continuing to stay close to these topics, from wherever I end up.

Our 2006 experiment stands as a small foray and learning experience into some of the most complicated, yet seismically important, issues of our time.

“Taking business seriously” is just one part of the equation, however. The rest, I fear, requires patience, persistence and commitments on behalf of us all.


Pondering…my next coffee break…

Designing For Good

Dawn at the top of one of Bujumbara’s stunning hilltops.

At 8am the CARE Burundi team meet on the lawn outside their office and stand in a circle for Monday’s daily briefing. Updates are shared, stories told, priorities for the day ahead clarified.

The team’s Country Director, Juvenal Afurika, closes out the meeting and comes over to my colleague, Dane, and me, “welcome to Bujumbara,” he smiles, “how are things going so far?”

‘Things’ were going well.

We’d landed into the country’s capital early Sunday, Dane from San Francisco via Europe, and me from Saigon, via the Middle East. Several months of preparatory team calls and re-worked excel sheets, carving out the various components to this assignment, were now gratifyingly behind us, and we were finally on African soil.

A few months prior to this visit we’d had to postpone coming over at the end of 2018, as CARE and the International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO) community went through a re-registration exercise with the Burundi Government.

This time, all was going smoothly as Dane and I sought out an inaugural meal by a lake, which we took cautiously, dining just a few metres away from a sunbathing hippopotamus.

Sunday lunch with a visiting sun seeker. Lake Tanganyika, Jan 2019.

We had flown all these miles for the opportunity to engage face-to-face with our colleagues in Bujumbara. The aim was to share our ideas about programme design, and learn valuable insights from their team about the challenges they faced designing social programmes.

Inevitably, as I’ve seen in other contexts, teams who deliver social programmes in local communities are juggling a number of priorities. In addition to which they are tasked with creating an appropriate set of activities and engagements that will actually be of use to local beneficiaries in the long run.

As I am sure happens at other INGOs, once a funding contract has been won, the clock instantly starts its countdown to that work being completed and reported back on. Increasingly, and perfectly justifiably, donors and the wider world of thoughtful commentators, want to see tangible evidence of change being made on the ground.

So, with the days and weeks ticking by, local partners initially get signed up to deliver different pieces of the work, whilst community meetings are staged with beneficiary groups.

However, even in these early phases, there are many things that can get delayed and compromise an initiative. Obtaining local government licenses to operate, for example, upskilling partner NGOs, or facilitating successful dialogue with those communities who will ultimately stand to benefit from the programme – these are just some of the things that pose risks to the success of the intervention if they are not carried out in a timely way.

Midway through a programme all too often local CARE teams, like our colleagues in Bujumbara, find their diaries crammed full: donor meetings; project visits; liaising with the different internal CARE stakeholders; compiling progress reports; ensuring compliance and accounting for funds spent; and then the inevitable requirement of drafting up new proposals for the next round of funding.

During this conveyor-belt of tasks there is seldom time for project teams to conduct detailed research, nor to properly test out new ideas for future programmes, let alone then validate the different assumptions linked to these new ideas having an impact.

And so, it was in this realm of testing and validation that Dane and I were focused for the five days we spent with our colleagues.

Dane sharing out ideas on design thinking. Bujumbara, Jan 2019.

Ostensibly, whilst seeking a world in which poverty and social injustice are overcome, CARE is also striving to render its services, at some point in the future, obsolete. Working itself out of being required by others, as opposed to the mandate of, say, a company which would be more akin to the opposite future state.

However, as a company would place emphasis and resources on conducting market research and product testing, so too must the likes of CARE follow suit, if we are to fulfil our ultimate mission anytime soon.

This was the message we were in town to share and to embed.

Afurika himself was sold on this approach. He and his leadership team had taken stock of CARE Burundi’s future portfolio and programme credentials, and decided on a “full makeover”. Their goal being to set the stage in Bujumbara for a new way of operating – one where design principles were going to sit higher up the list of priorities.

To help catalyse this shift, the team rented a building next to their office, and established it as an Innovation Hub – Hub Nawe Nuze. This was to be a new space to bring people together, to engage external stakeholders in, and to broadcast clearly the intentions of this team – Hub Nawe Nuze was to provide the impetus as well as the visual, practical structure in which CARE Burundi could begin its change process.

Yet, even with the excitement of launching the Hub, to actually evolve and to change a team’s approach is another matter. For CARE Burundi to discover, ideate, validate and then operationalise and scale new programme ideas in a way they’d not tried before was going to require new systems and processes, new roles and responsibilities for team members, and a new culture and mindset to absorb and adapt to all of this.

What transpired in our sessions during that week was one step in a longer exercise of accompaniment and learning to which both our teams had made commitments. Without these commitments, championed at the highest levels of the organisations, we’d simply not get off the starting blocks.

Design thinking comes in many descriptions and several INGOs are experimenting with it. At the core of a lot of what I have been exposed to, that has struck a chord for programme teams, is a commitment to organization and to rigour. Some of our colleagues in Bujumbara seemed to agree with this, too (click below to watch some sound-bites from our discussions with them…)

In practicing with our colleagues the craft of “validating a new idea” (which includes largely spending time consulting others and “sense checking” assumptions behind that idea, prior to spending decent money on rolling that idea out) we were merely facilitating the team’s own perspectives and sense of what may or may not work in their context.

In then following up our time in-country with regular team-to-team calls, and subsequently conducting a second in-person session at Hub Nawe Nuze in April, we were able to take our engagement on further.

Throughout these subsequent phases, the CARE Burundi team focused more on securing time and resources for their team to go on to share their new approach and processes with others (CARE and beyond) working in the Great Lakes region.

Not by a long shot does this ripple effect, in sharing out learning and experiences with others, stand out as new and innovative on its own. Nor should it represent the end of a blog post.

The implications of what CARE Burundi have begun to change in their organization will only take hold in the years to come, not the months and weeks between the next Hub event, or the next internal design team meeting.

What has been validated up until this point, however, are a number of previously rhetorical assumptions about organizational change. That change can be good, and that, indeed, you cannot address old problems without bringing in new solutions.

Still, how often do these beliefs and assumptions lie dormant and untested? How often, when it comes to working practices, can we truly say we’ve tried, tested, failed, iterated and tried again?

“Rendering CARE obsolete” will only be realized once we embrace, as CARE Burundi have begun to do, the inter-connected aspects of what that really looks like (new systems, processes, roles, responsibilities, culture, mindset, leadership and so on).

In this way, design thinking must remain a critical catalyst for CARE as we, along with our peers, accelerate towards making good on our ultimate goal.

Eyes on the prize

Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

I sat up and watched the first half of last night’s Women’s World Cup Final between USA and Netherlands, and it made great viewing. I’m no soccer pundit but I have immense respect for the idea of the game as a platform for many things. Exercise, competition, entertainment – it’s been called the most popular sport in the world.

A source of extreme sponsorship deals and extortionate salaries, soccer’s unique blend of controversy and celebrity continue to guarantee it a levitated brand status amongst millions of young wannabe players or ageing supporters.

In the UK, football is more important to some people than religion, family, work, or any truly higher plain or life calling. Without soccer, for these disciples, life would fundamentally cease to have meaning.

Where you fall on the side of loving or despising the “Great Game” itself, 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world woke up and recognized just how wholly discriminatory the world of soccer has been towards women. That will simply now never be the same again.     Continue reading “Eyes on the prize”

Just Keep Going


Last sunrise of 2018 in Saigon, complete with my favourite ferry crossing.

Happy New Year from Saigon!

There’s nothing like the arrival of January to spark action. Resolutions, I’ve had a few. The most plausible so far being a commitment to eat and drink more slowly, rather than inhaling meals and bottles of wine as if food rationing and prohibition laws were about to be imposed.

Less plausible resolutions include: writing more; drinking less; reading more; and looking at my phone less.

I say ‘less plausible’ in that I’m fairly confident of being able to strike a balance with objectives like these – it’s just a fear of setting myself up to fail by insisting on rigid, self-imposed restrictions. Moderation, it’s often touted, is key, but then so, too, is our ability to feel in control of what we are doing.

More’s the pity that, in many ways, I simply enjoy so many of these pursuits (including my job, and the ebb and flow of travel and time it requires) that I feel more practice is still required to find a useful daily cadence to accommodate all the ‘things’.     Continue reading “Just Keep Going”

Innovations in Resilience


Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”

A short story of self


I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”     Continue reading “A short story of self”

Drawing Down

Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.     Continue reading “Drawing Down”