On April 8, 2014, Deirdre White, CEO of PYXERA Global and long-time practitioner and leader in international development, delivered the closing remarks to the 5th Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference – Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets. The inspiring keynote, which wrapped the successful two-day gathering of leaders from the private, public, and social sectors, emphasized how cross-sector collaboration can pave the way for “development 2.0,” purposeful global engagement. Read the entire keynote only on the New Global Citizen:
When I was first asked to provide the closing remarks for the 5th Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference, my first thought was that by this point in time, you have heard enough of my musings, whether in person, in my blogs, or even in my very occasional forays onto Twitter. But then I gave it some thought and decided that this might be an excellent opportunity to make a confession to all of you. “A confession?” you ask. Well, yes. Because while many of you know how vocal a proponent I am for the good that business can do in the world—especially with the right partnerships across the public and social sectors—what you probably don’t know is that I did not start out that way. In fact, rather the opposite. It’s true, I confess, I was a stalwart business-hater.
So, if you will indulge me, I’d like to share with you a bit about why I took that position in the past, and why and how my thinking on the topic evolved. This means you have to take a little trip into my past, so bear with me a few moments, and I promise not to tell you about my first grade teacher or my high school crush.
I suppose I did not really have a choice but to be a do-gooder of some sort. When I was two months old, my family moved to Ouagadougou, in what was then Upper Volta. My father has spent his whole career working in the field of public health, and at the time, he was part of Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to eradicate smallpox. So my mom and brother and I travelled from Bourkina to Ghana to Ivory Coast to Senegal as he worked to vaccinate people across West Africa in what turned out to be a fantastic and lifesaving massive effort using public funds.
My mom, on the other hand, spent most of her career as a civil rights attorney for the labor department, where her job was to sue businesses that violated the fair labor standards act, ensuring that people were treated and compensated fairly when business behaved badly, which appeared from my observation and the volume of my mom’s work, was far, far too often.
In other words, I grew up with a sense that business can do a lot of bad, and that government is there to save lives and also to keep businesses in check. And this was not because my parents said that, but because of what I observed in their work. I’m sure I had no sense of the NGO, or social sector at the time.
I’m also sure I neither thought through where those lifesaving vaccines came from, nor the number of jobs sustained by those very same businesses kept in check by the fair labor standards act.
In other words, it was pretty black and white for me. But hey, I was a just a little kid.
Fast forward a number of years, and further cementing my distrust for and dislike of business was the situation in apartheid South Africa. In the 1980s, there were huge movements across the US to get American businesses to divest of their South African operations. I remember being such a proud daughter watching my mom arrested and plasticuffed for protesting at the South African Embassy—and so disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to get arrested too, only to watch and drive the car home.
I took my outrage and sense of injustice to my college days at Penn. A quick peek into the archives of the Daily Pennsylvanian would tell you how often I used my opinion column to rage against the University for its massive investment in businesses with South African operations. As a leader of the Penn Anti-Apartheid coalition, I even went so far as to bring together a handful of other students to file a class action lawsuit against the university to force transparency on the investments, and, of course, eventual disinvestment of our endowment. Umm, they really loved me at Penn…
Yes, that is me in the picture—I hope you appreciate my ‘80s hairdo as well as how good I look with a bullhorn in my hand. It turns out that when you grow up, they give you a microphone and a blog page instead.
At that time, the guiding principle for American businesses who maintained operations in South Africa was “constructive engagement”, in other words, “We can do more good by being here and having good policies vis-à-vis black South Africans than if we were not here.” For those who don’t remember those days, Reverend Sullivan from Philadelphia had developed the Sullivan Principles for responsible business engagement in South Africa. The original Sullivan principles were launched in 1977 to apply economic pressure on South Africa in protest of its system of apartheid. The principles eventually gained wide adoption among United States–based corporations.
But at the time, there was much criticism that these generally positive principles were simply a set of standards with no real teeth, and that while they may have changed some of the environments within a business working place, they were not fostering substantive policy change. They gave business a justification for —and a way for management and shareholders to feel better about—turning profits under the apartheid regime. For those of us focused on the issue, we saw it as crucial that our university not be supported with money in any way earned through the atrocities of apartheid.
In looking back at the height of the anti-apartheid campaign of the ‘80s, it is fascinating to see what the role of business turned out to be. Before the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, at least 100 businesses completely withdrew their existing operations from South Africa. At the movement’s peak in the late 1980s, hundreds of universities, governments and pension funds in the U.S. had pulled billions of dollars out of South Africa, helping to undermine the apartheid regime.
That is, while it was certainly the courage of the South African people that was at the heart of the changes that rolled out in the early’ 90s, even Mandela himself credited the American movement for divestment and the eventual passing of the economic sanctions bill as having pushed deKlerck into a corner where he had no choice but to hand over power. In other words, it was not the constructive engagement that fostered change, but the active disengagement of business.
While at the time I was primarily focused on getting businesses not to support bad, in retrospect, this was my first real lesson in the power of business to do good. That is, business acted as a powerful counterpoint to government, and was able to force the enactment of unfathomable social change. And while there was certainly talk of Corporate Social Responsibility in the two decades previous, from my observation, that divestment movement was the spark that launched contemporary corporate citizenship practice—launched it slowly, to be sure, but I believe that there was enormous, if unconscious, recognition of the power (if not the obligation) of business to do good for society.
For my part, it was also, if subconsciously, the reason PYXERA Global focuses on the work we do today – we believe it’s time for another spark, and that’s why we have made it our bold mission to reinvent the way private, public and social sector interests come together to solve problems and effect change.
It is also not unimportant that our vision is of a CULTURE of sustained collaboration. This means long-term behavioral change. And while certainly the past two days (of the conference) have shown ample evidence of cross-sectoral partnerships, and some progress on the culture change, we still have a long ways to go.
Catalyzing Growth and Change in Emerging Markets
So with that background, and confession behind me, let’s turn back to today and why you are all here—to Catalyze Growth in Emerging Markets. If I had the opportunity to rename the conference today, I might say Catalyze Growth and Change in Emerging Markets because I think the focus on growth for growth’s sake does not serve many citizens of the world well and that change of systems and mindsets to provide broader opportunities must accompany growth. And that comment is not directed just toward the private sector, but equally to the public and social sectors.
The US has been engaged in so-called development since the post-World War II Marshall Plan, which while it contributed enormously to Europe’s ability to recover and thrive after the war, was also a brilliant containment strategy in the dawning of the Cold War. Post-Marshall plan, it seems that we development experts gradually lost our way. That’s not to say that development practitioners have not done an enormous amount of good—especially in crisis and humanitarian response, and in the global health arena, the successes are many—but the failures are many too, and there are undeniable contributions of the aid system to propping up bad leaders and to disenfranchising the very people that it set out to help.
Moving Beyond Development to Purposeful Global Engagement
These failures should shock, offend, and shame us, but in spite of a few key books and articles, we’re not talking about it as practitioners or as a nation. I said earlier that behavior and mindset change is critical to a better world, and part of the mindset change at PYXERA Global is that we are erasing the word “Development” from our vocabulary in favor of this concept of “Purposeful Global Engagement”
Some of you may have noticed the similarity to the term “constructive engagement” of the 1980s anti-apartheid movement. Ironically, given the background I just shared, I only noticed that when I was preparing my comments for this closing. In any case, I think that whether the model in your head is one of “development” or “constructive engagement,” purposeful global engagement kicks it up a notch. It requires us to do more.
Having worked in the international development field myself for more than 25 years, I object to the term development as I think it connotes doing something “to” someone or something. And while you may think that is too nuanced—if you look at some of the greatest development failures of the last 70 years—it is precisely this dropping in and doing something TO someone that has been the root of some colossal failures, with sometimes catastrophic results for individuals, communities, and nations.
By the way, I have a whole list of words I object to in this space—beneficiaries, developing countries, and fragile states, just to start. I don’t have good new language for my entire list yet, so I invite you to join PYXERA Global on its journey to “re-vocabularize” development. Because, like it or not, nomenclature counts.
So now let’s look at this notion of “purposeful engagement.” Here, we are doing something WITH someone. We are engaging together with a purpose. In the case of the John Deere Foundation’s JIVA program, some 20 people spent the better part of three weeks engaging with villages, from the regional government all the way down to the farmer and student level, with the purpose of identifying needs and creating a longer term engagement for positive change. That’s 60 person weeks spent just getting a solid picture of the challenges in three tiny villages! Trust me, that does not happen in your average development project, but it was possible by leveraging the talent and time of John Deere employees.
In the case of Dow, IBM, Pfizer, and Merck, PYXERA Global identifies host organizations and conducts participatory needs assessments. We don’t assume we know their needs and what is right. We listen and co-create a scope of work and then match the skill sets of our private sector partners, who go on to co-create solutions. In the case of all global pro bono or international corporate volunteer programs, individuals and companies are engaging with the purpose of developing skills and leadership acumen, and gaining insights into new markets, but also with the purpose of driving social impact.
Purposeful Global Engagement is a different mindset. It moves away from the idea that “we are here to help you.” And I know it feels so good to have that sense of “helping”. But I would challenge us all to think of this work as “Providing services that enable people and organizations to succeed,” and to find that concept equally satisfying, and equally warm and fuzzy.
That may not seem hard, but it can be. When we look at charitable activities around the globe and the way that fundraising is done, it is often about “help”, and the pictures show a mother that will be able to feed her child because of your help. It sure feels good to be a part of that. And charity is important. Philanthropy is important. It’s important that there are organizations that fill those immediate humanitarian needs.
But with purposeful global engagement and with global pro bono in particular, we move away from the idea of “helping” and to one of “service provision and enabling success.” Yep, so much of the global pro bono work on the ground is all about process.
It’s so unsexy, isn’t it? Well it sure as heck shouldn’t be, because process change is what allows that mother to feed her child EVERY day, not just the day or days that your $20 pays for. Process is what helps NGOs or local governments better deliver required services. Process is what helps entrepreneurs to grow and serve and hire more people. Process is what transforms the old adage about giving a man a fish and he eats for a day. The usual endpoint is “teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
At PYXERA Global we believe you can’t stop there—sorry, but that’s the easy, feel good way out. In fact, you need to support the creation of an ecosystem, where there is processing and canning and sales and marketing. And fishing pole manufacturing. And financial and HR and safety policies. Then, that same fisherman isn’t only feeding himself, but he is also enabling a whole community to feed themselves, and others as well.
That’s about supporting process, and it’s maybe not the prettiest of pictures –the fish processing factory above–but we in this room have the capacity and the resources to affect this kind of major change. Dr. Pat Morris from DTS said this to me the other day “Process is the root of all social change”.
Wow. Think about that for a moment. How do you like that, YOU, the work that all of you in this room do through your global pro bono programs and partnerships, is the root of social change?
To me that is undeniably sexy, and I hope it is to you all as well.
Courage to Change the Status Quo
I think it’s really important to take a moment to talk about the courage it takes to walk this engagement path, this partnership path, this process path. All of you are doing it, and you are probably so IN it that you do not recognize that it is quite unique.
It takes courage to engage and to find out what is really needed, versus what you want to give. It also takes time, resources and deep listening and observation skills.
As we heard in abundant detail yesterday and today, it takes courage to forge a true partnership. It takes compromise. It takes respect for one another’s goals, experiences, knowledge, processes, and approaches. It takes more time to forge a partnership than to just hire a vendor or move forward on your own.
It takes courage, if you are the one writing the check, to ensure that you are incorporating the partners’ goals as well. It takes courage, if you are a donor institution or an NGO, to accept that your private sector partner has a goal, even an obligation, to drive business value that is to ultimately profit from this work. And that is a valid goal, and should be embraced as part of the partnership.
It takes courage to disagree with your partner. Gina Tesla from IBM and I were on a panel together a couple months back and we were discussing this concept that partnership is hard, and takes a lot of effort. At one point I said something along the lines of “If you’ve never wanted to strangle your partner, it’s probably not a really partnership.” To which Gina replied, “Innovations and great ideas don’t always come from agreement.” Turns out even the great peacemaker Gandhi saw that disagreement and progress go hand in hand. These are really important notions to understand, accept, and even value highly.
It takes courage to embrace fostering process change as a massive contribution to the world. It does not have pretty pictures and the traditional feel-good stories, but together as a global pro bono field of practice, I can see we are changing the traditional “feel good,” and creating a whole new sphere of contributions that matter.
A Call to Action
One way you can certainly tell that it takes courage to do this type of global pro bono work can be seen in this room and in the PYXERA Global ICV Benchmarking Study. We have, all of us together, developed a proven model that drives both business and social value. It is a gold standard shared value model. And yet, we have faced some pretty stunning challenges in interesting many of our public and NGO sector colleagues, especially here in the US, in collaboration. Those of you here from these sectors can see the great potential and I want to acknowledge your vision and openness, and express how grateful we are for the opportunity to work with you. But there are, frankly, far too few of you at the table and far too few who are prepared to make the compromises necessary to engage in these types of partnerships. The private sector is swarming the dance floor, and there are far too few good dance partners out there. You have a vested interest—the world has a vested interest—in not leaving them to dance alone.
Turning to the private sector, we learned this morning that there are still only 39 companies doing this work at any scale. It’s just not enough. Twenty-six companies answered our survey, and the 2000 people a year they are dedicating is not enough. Even if we assume that those 13 companies who did not respond have comparable programs, we’re still only to 3000 participants a year. It’s not enough to affect change within corporations, and it’s not enough to really move the needle on complex global challenges like those we’ve discussed these past two days.
So I leave you today not only with a thanks for your courage and the courage of the companies, organizations, and government agencies you represent, but also with a challenge—a challenge to do more to instill courage in others; to do more to change mindsets regarding partnership and mutual benefit; to do more to share the importance of process change; to do more to get other companies to follow your example; to do more to scale up your own programs; and to think creatively about what ICV 2.0 looks like.
What are the innovations we can bring to this proven model that will more quickly and more effectively move that needle? I have the feeling that we will have some really exciting new approaches to explore—same time, next year.