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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Afterthoughts from the VI Inter-American Conference on CSR

By Francisco Noguera

BID2Attending the "VI Inter-American Conference on CSR: The Business of Inclusion" in Cartagena was a great opportunity to draw a parallel between the nascent BoP/ Development through Enterprise movement in Latin America and the one in the English-speaking world, which I've had the chance to dive deeper into in the course of this year.

Following is a brief summary of my impressions and three main takeaways from the conference.1. Lots of "top down"; not as many "bottom up" approaches

Most of the Latin American examples of business activity tackling the problems of poverty still come from MNCs and big corporations, in general. In fact, most of the panels, sessions and exhibition stands at the conference featured big companies that are the usual suspects of BoP activity in these countries (think CEMEX, Codensa, Colcer?mica, etc.)

It is thus understandable that the title of the conference blends the concepts of CSR and BoP activity. Slowly but steadily, CSR is being viewed as a stepping stone towards making low income markets part of the business strategy of corporations.

However, the conversations about entrepreneurial solutions to the problems of poverty are still not as strong, which shows that the ecosystem of support for these ventures (investment funds, venture philanthropists, enterprise development organizations, etc.) is still in the process of formation and will hopefully learn from the path walked by its counterpart in countries like the United States or India. I know of several interesting initiatives that are underway in the region and perhaps next year?s conference will have less of the CEMEX (nothing against CEMEX, just an example...) and more of the local Mr. Sharmas.

Indeed, Mr. Sharma --Founder and CEO of SBA Hydro, a company supported by New Ventures India and also an Acumen Fund investee-- and his fellow panelists added much of the entrepreneurial flavor to the conference, during a session that WRI organized together with AVINA and FUNDES. Footage and video interviews were captured so stay tuned for a more in depth post about that conversation.

Bottomline: We need to work harder on identifying and promoting the silent entrepreneurs that are using innovative vehicles to improve the lives of local communities in our regions. We also need to make sure that the interesting trends in the intermediary space, such as ANDE, find local representation in the region and act in coordination with the US counterparts.

2. We need more?presence of?academia

The Social Enterprise Knowledge Network (SEKN, which also hosted an interesting session during the conference) is the most visible academic effort to understand and disseminate the challenges and opportunities around social entrepreneurship in Latin America. However, we need more... much more!

Academia is a fundamental actor in the purpose of mainstreaming the conversation and most importantly the action around social entrepreneurship. A deeper (programs and curricula in different disciplines focused explicitly around the challenges of development) and more widespread (replicated in more academic institutions) commitment to these issues should result, not only in better and smarter conversation about these opportunities, but most importantly in the next generation of innovators and trendsetters.

I kept asking people during coffee breaks "how do we make this the hot topic here, like it is in the US? How do we build the Colombian and Latin American Net Impact Conference?" I am convinced that University campuses are the right places to plant those seeds and the right places to start a real movement around entrepreneurship and our challenges as a society.

What can we do? Well I believe that communications and knowledge play a huge role. We can find role models for them, tell their stories, show that this is possible and motivate a new wave of enthusiasts that takes the chance of starting new ventures that blend their intellectual/ academic interests and the hope for a more just and equitable society".

Besides telling stories and communicating these concepts in one direction, we must enable mechanisms for the conversation to continue, for the enthusiasm to turn into connections and then into actual ventures. Which brings me to my third and final point...

3. The conversation must continue

I got the feeling that the movement and activity in this field is moving in the right direction in Latin America. However, for the points above to actually take place, we must build a movement and keep the conversation going). As we did back in 2004 when a similar conference took place in San Francisco, we started last week the exciting venture of NextBillion en Espa?ol.

We trust this will enable a richer conversation about this issues and hopefully spur more enthusiasm and activity around these concepts. There were also other sites participating at the conference and I was very pleased to see that activity. Indeed, I believe that a Web 2.0 community like the one that has spured in the US can help push these issues forward and enrich the practice and understanding of BoP activity in the region.

All in all, it was a very positive and promising venue. Kudos to the organizers, and stay tuned for more detailed coverage of our session.

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