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…

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”

A Letter to my 18-year-old Self

Dear Me,

Congratulations on your recent birthday, and on finishing up your ‘A’ level exams this morning!

Who’d have thought you’d make it through those intact, after such appalling mock results, and no University offers in the bag. You can now, at will, rapidly forget all those Shakespeare and Aristophanes quotes you learnt in the woods with ‘JR’, deliriously smoking packs of cigarettes, whilst counting down the days until this one – the day you got to put your biros down, walk out of the familiar, and off into a world of new.

Full marks, too, for all the extra-curricular activities safely executed upon these past two years at boarding school. It gives me considerable joy to report that no long-term damage was caused by any of said activities and exploits. In fact, you may well have been all the better shaped from them. Who knew?!

The summer holidays you are about to embark on will be some of the very best times of your life. Bettered only by each and every chapter that unfolds, year after year, from now on – all the new twists and turns you will encounter in the process offering up maddening and exhilarating experiences in equal measure. But, don’t worry, I can vouch for the fact that you at least get through to 44 years old, relatively unscathed.

I’ve no wisdom to impart to you that will be any more influential on your life than by learning it yourself, on your terms, and when you are ready. Although, if you are reading this, then a few things maybe to throw into the mix (you know how much you/I like to offer up nuggets, when given half a chance):-

With these unfolding chapters and experiences that I have just forewarned you about, seeking comfort and reassurance from different sources can tie you over (books, physical challenges, bottles of wine shared with entrusted friends) however, the trick is to create your personalized palate of truths, from within your own ample stock of resources. You don’t have to rush this. Let it come when the time is right;

We do all, of course, only go round once (as one of your future inspirations will reaffirm) and so, where we can, we’re the more fulfilled in the end if we spend these days with our ears open and our perspectives in a constant state of flux. You will travel, you will place yourself in situations to do just this – over and over – and you’d be wise to never stop doing so, even if that means staying in one place for a long period of time. There will be ways (technology, you’ll see) to do this, that haven’t been invented yet;

Be thoughtful, even when you don’t think you need to be;

Be present, even when you are not;

Moreover, find connection in as much as you can. People, places, objects, activities. Love.

All the rest is an assortment of choices, indulgences, emotions and circumstance. Life’s tombola. Full of surprises it can be, so don’t be afraid to ever buy a ticket and put your hand in to see what is there.

Believe in yourself (just look what you pulled off with those exams) and be sure to write to me in the future.

Your ever-loyal Self,


Day of my last ‘A’ level exam. June, 1993.


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”

Back in This

CARE’s Innovation Team working the camera at Goodlight Studio, Birmingham, AL.

This time last week I returned from the USA – a giddy eight flights and two weeks of work and immersion into some of the country’s civil rights history, as CARE contemplates setting up programmes in America.

I’m still absorbing all that I saw and heard…

From talking to activists outside The White House the day after I arrived; to discussions with colleagues in D.C. about CARE’s future presence in Nigeria, where we are aiming to build the resilience of those affected by ongoing humanitarian issues there; through to time in Atlanta with my incredible team, exploring ways to lift up the opportunities for innovation across CARE’s network; before pausing for a weekend’s moment of Southern Decadence in New Orleans, a city whose authenticity and openness (in more senses of the word during that particular weekend, and which requires it’s own discreet blog post) to diversity and to humanity really are as creative and appealing as one imagines they could be; followed by road tripping up and into the State of Alabama, for more planning sessions at the fabulous Goodlight Studio in Birmingham, and a whistle-stop dive into some of the iconic civil rights moments of the 1960s, which unfolded in this infamous part of the country (from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, to visiting Joe Mintor’s garden displaying thirty years of work in bringing to life historical events in his garden, through the medium of scrap metal and every day objects); all of which culminated in a final leg in Montgomery, meeting the team at the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) and hearing from Lecia Brooks and Richard Cohen at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, privileged encounters (amongst others had that week with lawyers, journalists, pastors and advocates for change) offering up precious, honest and heart wrenching insights into the social justice journeys that so many generations across the “Deep South” have been experiencing, each story a momentary platform to quench the individual (and increasingly collective) thirst for action which pulsates through the corridors of these justice-focused institutions, and through the determination of those who inhabit them on a daily basis; until, with my last 24 hours to spare, I flew up to Connecticut, to spend time with one of my oldest and dearest of friends, whose son, my godson, Sam, and I played pool whilst, trading insights about the speeches of Martin Luther King, taught at Sam’s high school, and equipping him and his peers with knowledge, in a way that left me more inspired about how this next generation of power holders and decision makers, of mothers and fathers, of politicians and business executives, might be gifted the intuitive sense of how their fingerprints and footprints can have positive meaning and a place in future history books, as they embark on their own life missions to become their best selves…     Continue reading “Back in This”