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…

Value judgements


CARE staffer Ana Mazen at Azraq camp, in Jordon. Picture credit Sarah Rashdan/CARE.

I’m flying to Singapore on Thursday for work. For those more acquainted with my blogs on definitelymaybe (or on the sister site you’ll have picked up on the fact that I go through spells of heavy travel because of my job.

Every time a work assignment involving being out of Saigon (where I live) is conceived – by me, or by someone I work with, or work for – there are formal criteria for finalizing a decision about going, or not going.

For example, is the assignment in response to a need in that country from a CARE team, an invitation from a partner organization, or the mandate of a higher authority in the system? Who is paying for the costs? What is the detailed scope of work, the objectives? And so on.

I wonder, though, about the less formal criteria that come into play? Those that emanate from individual persuasions and from hierarchies?

Does CARE, and do other entities, in situations of deploying staff overseas to conduct their work, have open and accountable ways of prioritizing who goes where, and for what ends?

Furthermore, how should a not-for-profit agency such as CARE, working to empower marginalized and vulnerable women and girls, decide whether it is more impactful for its mission to send someone in a more “senior” role to a networking conference vs. sending a more “junior” level person on a training course?

In this example, the networking assignment might yield an opportunity to bring valuable new investments into CARE. The training course example might, instead, not only increase the quality of a specific piece of programme design but might also inspire that staff member to be retained for a longer period of time (which, as we know, tends to save organisations money, given the cost of recruiting new people.)

Is one of these examples more directly related to CARE being impactful in our work than the other?

This connundrum, perhaps, doesn’t require public consultation via my blog, and these are issues which are persuasive across sectors and institutions.

However, as carbon emissions are a dominant root cause that exacerbate poverty and social injustice around the world, it does feel incumbent upon those of us working to support those people most impacted on by poverty and social injustices, to be held to account around our standards and decision making.

The issue of how CARE goes about bringing investments into our organisation, how we build quality programmes, and how we reduce our carbon emissions must be inter-connected.


It occurs to me, too, that this use of ‘informal’ criteria is pervasive in all walks of life, and how we make decisions on many things, and speaks to our individual, collective and societal values.

When I ride my motorbike around Saigon (itself an often complex past-time, and one of the topics of an early blog) I’ll make judgements at every corner, and with every mirror check along the way. Split second decisions are calculated based on a.) what I perceive should be the (formal) rules – although it’s never 100% clear over here – and b.) what I might then decide are more intuitive (informal) reasons.

Spread over this recipe for decision making a splattering of social and cultural norms (we got into this last week, too) and sometimes the results are pain free, and other times they leave me hand-gesturing and losing face in front of a road full of people and vehicles.

The values based judgements I and others might be drawing from in such scenarios are often buried deep. And so do we always even know that we are drawing from them, particularly in situations where we find ourselves in arguments or in discussions with conflicting view-points?

I rarely quote the bible on this blog, but how often do we stop and follow the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” mantra (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for anyone who, like me, just needed to google the line itself)? If I were to create for myself a strong grouping of values to lead my life by, then I think this one is a great contender.

Yet, is it possible to follow this particular biblical ethic in everything one does in life? Who knows. But I do think a small helping of it everyday would be a valuable beginning.

Just as we are taught (rightly so) not to judge a person by their appearance, I think a good deal of inspiration for me comes when you combine various valuex based sentiments together, and ‘walk their talk’.

As someone initially might take up daily meditation, repeatedly over time they might then develop the ability to use what, eventually, becomes a more ingrained technique and state of mind into how they think, speak, and behave, and how they move from each day-to-day activity and past-time.

Perhaps there is a way for those of us operating from positions of power (from wealth, health, security) to genuinely connect with those values which we often speak about, but less often act upon? Better still, can we be consistently true to these values and be honest with ourselves when we are not?

This morning, I watched a video that actress Shay Mitchell hosted for CARE, documenting a visit she made to a refugee camp in Azraq, Jordon. There, she spent time on a CARE project set up to teach young people how to make films, and give them a channel to express themselves (which I’m pleased to say is an initiative that will now continue through past 2018).

Celebrity promotions of international development work have always been ‘a thing’ and some will be critiqued positively, and some negatively. Carbon emissions were expended, and other investments were made, to make this particular visit, project and resulting video happen. It moved and inspired me (caveating that I do have a certain bias). Maybe for others it will illicit different reactions.

Click on many newspaper front pages this morning, and articles underscoring the desperate plights of hundreds of thousands of other refugees, across the globe, are waiting to be read. They demand, and also deserve, our attention.

This, in part, is our dilemma. I’m sharing the Azraq video to (even slightly) help its promotion to even more then the one million or so watches it has already well deserved. In writing about CARE’s other work from time to time, I hope to do the same. To trigger some reflection. To percolate, for any reader who stops by, a thought or a feeling.

I’ll never actually be able to conclude if this creates impact in itself, but I will continue to experiment with that.

One thing that I do know, specifically related to this video, is that I met Jameel (CARE’s Project Manager for the work in Azraq) recently, and it would be impossible to meet someone whose strong values based approach, to his work and to his life, was more profound.