Business has key role in ending poverty

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Today 20,000 people will die from poverty, hunger and preventable diseases in the world’s poorest countries.

This shocking statistic is at the heart of this year’s global anti-poverty campaign. Its simple message is that continuing poverty and death on this scale is no longer morally or politically acceptable.

The September UN summit in New York will take stock of progress made in working towards the Millennium development goals agreed by world leaders in 2000. Many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will not meet the goals – to halve poverty and hunger, to achieve universal primary education, and to halt the spread of Aids – by the target date of 2015.

Media coverage at the summit will focus on political decisions: how much will developed countries increase aid flows; how are developing countries to improve governance standards; and what reforms of the UN system are agreed.

But other critical factors need to receive attention if the goals are to be achieved.

How can we learn from development work and avoid the mistakes of the past? What innovations, good science and new resources can be used to defeat poverty? What networks and partnerships can be created to tap into the concern shown by ordinary citizens, business and professionals after the Asian tsunami and during the Live 8 campaign?

New models of partnership are emerging between official government aid programmes, business and non-governmental aid agencies.

Many global companies are committed to a programme of corporate social responsibility which targets global poverty. In Ireland, companies such as Vodafone and the Musgrave Group are among the leaders in this field.

The FTSE4Good Index includes companies which meet corporate social responsibility criteria and assist investors and consumers in making ethically sound decisions.

Private sector investment is crucial for development. Some developing countries have succeeded in creating a climate that stimulates both domestic and foreign investment. They present opportunities for businesses prepared to take a medium to longer-term view.

Development Co-operation Ireland (DCI) has set up a private sector forum, chaired by Liam Fitzgerald, chief executive of United Drug, to identify investment opportunities for Irish businesses in Africa.

Minister for Development Co-operation and Human Rights Conor Lenihan strongly supports this approach and the forthcoming White Paper on development will reflect this. But the poorest developing countries do not have the political stability, legal systems or the business climate to attract investment. However, non-governmental aid agencies working there can still partner business to channel resources to the world’s poorest people.

In Ireland, a number of businesses and wealthy individuals have contributed generously to aid agencies. But there are few examples of companies and agencies partnering to work towards specific development goals.

Concern is fortunate to have developed a number of such partnerships in recent years.

Depfa Bank is supporting microfinance programmes in Cambodia, and education and decentralised government programmes in Mozambique. The relationship goes deeper than providing finance for these programmes. Depfa encourages its employees to work for short periods on Concern programmes.

Concern’s second innovative partnership is with Tipperary Water. In one of the first examples in Ireland of “cause-related marketing”, consumers are given the chance to link their purchasing decisions to a good cause – providing wells and clean water in Eritrea. From Concern’s perspective, the project has two advantages: It raises money to meet a critical need and it promotes public awareness of the importance of clean water to the lives of very poor people, particularly women, in Africa.

We need other imaginative ideas. Aid agencies must be innovative and have a strong learning culture if their work is to maximise its development impact. This requires investment in high quality people who can engage with experts in areas like nutrition and public health. Concern has done this in developing community therapeutic care, a new approach to dealing with malnutrition. This has been so successful that a number of African governments have built it into their public health systems.

Such investments can be seen as a type of “development risk capital”. While it is difficult for governmental donors to support them, business, working in partnership with an aid agency, could be prepared to take such a risk.

Universities and professional organisations can be co-opted into such partnerships. The Institution of Engineers of Ireland has taken the imaginative step of creating a framework agreement with the Irish aid agencies to provide engineers for emergencies and development programmes. Other professions could adopt a variation of this model.

Four centuries ago, John Donne wrote “no man is an island”. This is even more true in today’s world of globalised information. We cannot close our eyes to 20,000 people dying unnecessarily every day.

Governments have primary responsibility to take the political decisions to end this scandal, but novel ways of facilitating business and others to make their contribution have to be part of the solution.

Tom Arnold is chief executive, Concern Worldwide

Source: The Irish Times