Partnerships for social good and sustainable development take on a new look

23 Nov 2012

The UN Development Programme hosted a unique event in Bangkok this week that brought innovators together from a range of sectors and organizations to discuss new ways of partnering for development. Participants challenged traditional concepts of corporate social responsibility, philanthropic giving, and private and public partnerships for creating good. They examined innovative solutions to the major development challenges of our time.

New buzz words like “co-creation of value” and “collaborative capacities” translated into very pragmatic examples of how businesses, non-governmental organizations, governments and the UN can work together for mutual benefit, and in different ways from past approaches.

In fact, everything about the meeting was different. The keynote address was given by Richard Hames, a renowned ‘futurist’ and ‘corporate philosopher’ whom Forbes Asia touted as ‘one of the smartest people on the planet’. Some of the most tech savvy people at the event had no physical offices mentioned on their business cards, and instead introduced themselves as being “home- based on the internet”.

The three-day meeting, supported by UNDP, brought 90 people from business, academia, NGO s and UN agencies together to share ideas and new practical applications for technology, investments, financing and partnerships for sustainable development.

Technological innovations have helped to improve governance, transparency, accountability and delivery of social services. Mr. T.R. Raghunandan, Founder of www.ipaidabribe.com talked about the power of online systems to keep corruption in check. He is planning a new online platform that will tackle 40 of the most corruption-prone procedures that plague citizens in India, such as registration and sale of property, or distribution of rations, and unnecessary fees related to car purchases.

Examples ranged from partnerships that affect several million people to those that focus on thousands. Mr. Karma Yongten, founder of Greener Way which is Bhutan’s first waste management firm, showed how a partnership approach to collecting and processing domestic rubbish creates mutual benefits for partners and communities in Bhutan. A local plastic bottle plant creates jobs and income, instead of creating mountains of plastic waste.  Mr. Asif Ahmed from CARE Bangladesh shared practical examples of how an ‘inclusive business’ approach can benefit and involve both large companies  and poor communities.

Mr. R.S. Sharma, Director-General of Unique Identification Authority, Planning Commission of India spoke about his “largest data base in the world” which is attempting to use biometrics and fingerprints to give  unique ID numbers and cards to 1.2 billion people in India. The aim is to authenticate people’s identities for the transparent provision of public goods and services so the benefits go the right people,  duplication and corruption are eliminated, and efficiency is improved.

“We are seeing a reinvention of institutions and organizations for social development,” said Mr. Hames, who is the Founding Director of the Asian Foresight Institute. “Principles of cooperation and collaboration are overtaking the idea of competition,” he said.

Solutions to development challenges do not always depend on improving skills, according to many of the participants. In a changing world where talent and knowledge exist locally and internationally, and can move freely, solutions can be found by pooling the ideas, energy and resources of diverse people, organizations and businesses.   “Forget open-sourced software,” said Mr.  Raghunandan. “We need to think about open-sourced people.”

The meeting showcased many examples of social good being good for business. Standard Chartered Bank’s “Seeing is Believing” programme  which aims to bring access to eye care to 100 million people, “means more people can be brought back to the labor market”, according to their representative.

Unilever has set a corporate goal of doubling its business while halving its environmental footprint by 2020. “We must bring in sustainable development in order to do business,” said Mr. Sher Mazari, External Affairs Director, Unilever South East Asia and Australasia.

NGOs are also reexamining the way they work with partners, particularly with the private sector. Mr. Simon Brown of Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) said, “If we are going to work with business and realize the scale of working with the private sector, we cannot simply go to companies and ask for money.  We can bring change by getting a better ‘business  DNA’ so we can work with the private sector in a way that makes business sense.” “It is important to look for synergies not subsides,” said Mr. Sean Rooney, Executive Director for the Foundation for Development Cooperation in Australia.

The event questioned traditional notions of how governments, businesses, public and private sectors work together for common goals. Participants challenged known concepts of roles and responsibilities within partnerships, and gave insights into changes that are already happening that can be further leveraged to capitalize on the respective strengths of the range of partners for sustainable development.  The time is now for good intentions to translate into tangible actions.  Only through learning and working efficiently together, and “co-creating” solutions, can intractable development challenges be met. Facing those challenges head on is beyond the scope of any one partner.