Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

Read Full Post »

The UK and Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to CSR. If I only had a penny for everyone who said this. I hear this almost every single day. And not just from those in England who have a slightly superior attitude when it comes to CSR. I hear it from people here in the US just as often, if not more often. The truth is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Is cricket better than baseball? Only if you are from England. Although you wouldn’t know that from recent results – excluding the Ashes. And you would only like cricket more if you enjoy sitting in the sun and rain for five days and still not get a result. But I digress. They are both ball sports but they are vastly different. They might even share a common history, but that is where it stops.

I’ve noticed small differences as well. In the US companies focus often on what they do in the community – their communities. How you interact and how you support them. Europe tend to focus more on how you run your business in a responsible way – it’s about operations and how you work. The impact is important to both, but in the US you look at your community and their needs first and the way you work in your community might have something to do with the way you operate, but does not have to. In Europe you focus on your role in society through your operations and the impact you have, and then you improve on these. Through these operational changes you will have a more positive impact on society. Both benefits society, but they have slightly different points of departure.

The reason why the community focus is so central in the US is because there is less of a safety net in the US than in most of Europe. People do not expect government to solve their problems or protect them from every single little thing in life. No, people do that themselves and they tend to look after themselves and sometimes after each other. They expect to solve issues themselves. Americans like the idea of less interference by government and more control by themselves in taking responsibility of their own lives. It might have something to do with the open spaces, but Americans do not like people telling them what to do. They want to be masters of their own destiny. Less government and more power to the people.

In the UK and much of Europe there are much more of a reliance on government to interfere in daily life. People expect government to take more control of their daily lives and maintain the rules of how society engage and organize themselves. The rules of engagement. And they want government to identify the common areas of good that will help improve society. Government will tell you what is bad and help you to become better. All that is left for companies to do is ensure they do their best through operations and compliance to government regulations.

That brings me to a second and more important point of difference – regulations and compliance. Corporate behavior is managed through regulations and compliance in the UK and Europe. Everything you do is regulated and not left to the company to try to innovate on their side. Any leadership position you develop is very quickly turned into a government requirement. (Your window of opportunity to show true leadership will stay open for a very short period in this environment). Yes, European companies do some amazingly innovative stuff but just notice carefully how much of that innovation actually takes place outside of their own borders – where they source from or manufacture.

It helps that there is a strong central government in Europe. It makes it easy to push through new regulations. And it is even easier in Europe where the European Commission is hardly held responsible by ‘the people’ and have an almost free ride in bringing in new regulations. No wonder that Europe brought out regulations to define what a banana is – up to the curve needed to be defined as a banana. And I am not joking…

And it is also easy to bring in new regulations in the UK. It is a small island with a central government that runs the rule over everyone. Yes, Scotland and Wales have some autonomy, but the UK is still pretty much ruled from London. It is easy to understand the drive towards more regulations with so much power in the hands of a central government. It is in the nature of government to try to rule their own way. And each new government want to leave behind some kind of legacy. And what is easier than to bring in new regulations that can be sold as ‘for the good of everyone’.

One dynamic that makes this possible in the UK is the level of stakeholder engagement by the government. I was amazed to see how little joint constructive meetings between business, government and NGOs take place in the US. When I lived and worked in the UK it was so different. Regular meetings with all these key stakeholders together – and working together to fight and find solutions. Not over here in the US. It’s about lobbying and individual actions – and at best a few partnerships that will include the usual suspects of progressive companies and engaging NGOs. But not in the same was as over in the UK.

But the regulatory approach is different in the US. States control their own destiny much more than any regional authority in the UK. The federal government does not have the power to control everything. Even taxes are different from state to state. And some states like Massachusetts might regulate more towards the protection of people than those in say Texas, but it is up to each state to decide what is most relevant for their state. Federal government can provide guidelines and try to push through federal laws, but this is generally fought tooth and nail by states. The art of the federal government is to try and keep a balance between inching forward on the regulatory front and encouraging states to take control at a local level. But change happens at state level and not federal level.

This approach allows for companies to take more risk in trying out new practices and to develop a leadership position. They know they can bring in these practices without the danger of it being regulated to death. Yes, it is a fine balance. They still have to tell the truth in advertising and not make claims that can’t be backed, but they can be more risky in taking chances. Over in Europe it is slightly different. The aim of regulations is not to bring best practice into law, but to rather identify the lowest common denominator that could be passed as acceptable behavior by companies. I know, both have a place – best practice and lowest common denominator. In the US they lean more towards the former and in Europe more to the latter. It fits their societal and political needs.

Of course the US does have one thing that ensures that the lowest common denominator is ‘self regulated’. The I-will-sue-you culture. You make one mistake and the consumer will take you to the cleaners. Yes, it is out of control, but it creates an incentive for business to not do something that can harm the public. There are enough lawyers here to ensure that you will get sued. Businesses in Europe can hide behind compliance of law and it is much more difficult to sue someone if they haven’t broken the law instead of suing because they didn’t look after the public interest.

And some of the regulations make the way companies act very different. For instance, both the UK and US have regulations regarding how foundations are run. And these are very, very different. US corporate foundations are not allowed to do any work that can directly benefit the company. This was put in place to ensure that companies do not see this as a way to hide money, and to ensure they spend their foundation money on what is good for society as a whole. Very different in the UK. Much more freedom to be strategic in the way they spend their foundation money. They can spend the money on helping suppliers of the company and still write it off under foundation rules. The unbelievable work the Shell Foundation (UK) has done in development in poorer countries would not be allowed under US rules.

This difference in regulations and the community/operations dynamics also impacts key aspects of CSR – such as stakeholder engagement and CSR reporting. GRI is flourishing in Europe but struggling to find a solid foothold in the US. But it makes perfect sense. Europe is more driven by regulations and compliance and standards such as GRI makes sense. Everyone reports in a structured way following a specific methodology. It makes less sense in the US where there is less regulatory pressure and a greater need to engage their communities and consumers. They target their communications according to the needs of the receiving audience and not the regulatory and NGO audience. And CSR reporting GRI style is not the easiest thing to use when communicating to consumers and communities.

The US also likes rock stars and celebrities more than anything else. Man, their news are pathetic over here – give me the BBC and Guardian please. Every second story is about some celeb and their latest escapade. And that plays out in the way company CEO’s act as well – not empty celebs but the need for visible champions. The CEO and Chairman tend to play a major role in the public view of the company. Bill Gates is Microsoft. Jeff Swartz is Timberland. Howard Schultz is Starbucks. Steve Jobs is Apple. And each one have to make their mark in this world. Not because they want to, but because people expect them to lead from the front – lead the way in how and what they give and the way they run their company. They are the people others look up to and aspire to become. These leaders drive change across all businesses and are needed in a less regulated business environment. They are by default the people who drive real change through their own commitment to making business and society better. Thank God for them.

Less so in Europe. Companies are seen as more important that the individual. A few has made it to the front – Richard Branson as one. But they stand out because they are so different from the rest. The focus tends to be on the company and not the individual who runs it. Yes, they play a role, but the company is seen as less dependent on the CEO and/or Chairman than in the US. Another reason why the UK at least loves splitting this role while the US wants the same person in charge. Two big personalities would be difficult to control in the US.

One area where the US is way ahead of Europe is in communicating their CSR. They tend to focus on the communications part more while Europe tend to focus more on the operational changes. Maybe it is because the European (UK at least) society is more reserved than the US, but it means that Ben and Jerry’s is more respected in the US than Unilever. But in the UK it is the other way around. Of course this can be exploited and can confuse the consumer. A classic example is the current discussions in Washington about ‘green’ advertising and marketing. But the best tend to rise to the top and consumers do know to take things with a pinch of salt.

In short, the US is different because it fits in with the way their society organizes itself compared to Europe. Both approaches have real value. Both approaches will improve the world little by little. Both approaches will have failures and successes. But the one is not better than the other. Just different. Dealing with their own little peculiarities in their society and political systems. Both work. And both fails. But the US is not in any way behind Europe when it comes to the role of business in society. No. They are just different. An US approach won’t last a second in Europe. And a European approach won’t survive a second in the US. The real challenge for them both is to adapt when they are outside their own borders, culture and comfort zone. For example, neither will last long in China or South Africa if they just try to continue working the way they do in their country of origin. New rules and new ways of operating is needed. They have to bring the best of their world and merge it with the societal and political expectation in these new countries. And that won’t be better either. Just better for that specific country.

But the discipline of business in society benefits from this dynamics – bringing different approaches to the table. And it is when these merge and mingle that we move further ahead in this CSR world of ours. Of course there is one approach that works no matter where you are. The South African approach. But I won’t be giving away our secrets just yet. No, I am way to responsible to do something like that.

And don’t get me started on Europe. I use the term loosely. Although they tend to have regulations that cut across the business sector, each country will have its own little peculiarities. Not in my wildest dream will I ever tell an Englishman that he (or she) is similar to the French. Or German. Or Italians. Or any combination of the above. Each to their own. No one is better. Just different and it is up to us to learn a bit from everyone to help us all be a bit better. That’s how we make CSR work – by making it targeted to the needs of each society and their particular needs and the way they organize themselves.

Read Full Post »

Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement – ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

Read Full Post »

What kind of a (tree) hugger are you?

Brazil is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as the “sexy country”. Beautiful people ready to party and… erm… have sex. The Brazilian government embraced this stereotype and took aim at more than just safe sex by combining social and environmental issues into a product that will hopefully make us all hug a tree. Sustainable condoms…

Almost all condoms are made from oil or oil by-products. Rubber used to be tapped from trees but oil has taken over as the cheaper alternative. It has devastated the tapper industry in Brazil where the tapping rubber has been a traditional way of life in the Amazon. It’s a shame as tapping of trees are very sustainable as it doesn’t kill the tree. This was where the Brazilian government took the initiative and combined a few core challenges into a major project.

First up has been the Brazilian government’s very succesful anti-HIV/Aids program. The Brazilian plan was attacked by conservative governments and religious groups (and a few drug companies) but the government stood strong and targeted safe sex as a key part of addressing HIV/Aids in Brazil – that and cheaper drugs. And it work. Really well. So well that the Brazilian government is now the single largest purchaser of condoms in the world.

So how do you combine something dealing with health challenges with a program that can also tackle environmental and social challenges? By looking at the rubber.

Tappers have lost their income and forests are cleared for farming – a social and environmental nightmare. The Brazilian government stepped in and backed a plan to bring their purchasing power to the rubber tapping industry.In 2008 the government announced a plan to make the production of condoms more environmentally friendly by sourcing the rubber from sustainable sources – the trees.

Three challenges dealt with in one go – health, economy and the environment. People get condoms to protect them. People get jobs tapping rubber. The environment benefits because no trees are cut down. Beautiful.

Of course none of this would have been possible if the Brazilian government didn’t put their purchasing power behind it. But they did and the industry is starting to flourish beyond environmentally safe condoms (no pun intended). Handbags and other goods are being manufactured and the environment is at the heart of the project.

The lesson in this is that we should always take a step back and see how many angles we can work from. The Brazilian government took an angle that leveraged one program to impact others and drive even more benefits. Too often companies (and NGOs) look at a challenge from one dimension – micro-credit, education, health etc instead of looking at how they can combine different elements to have a better impact. You need to source a product from a farm in Africa? No problem working with the farmer and help him/her become more efficient. But what about education? And the infrastructure? And health? Work with others in the way the Brazilian government did and become more efficient. This way your project have a much broader impact and 2 + 2 really equals 5. Combine efficiencies and look the problem from different angles. Surround yourself with partners and employees who are different. The beauty of NGOs is that they do look from other angles but most companies miss these opportunities because they are just too narrow in their own focus.

Be open and find a new angle. You never know, you might become the “sexy company” who manages to truly make your bottom line fit in the with the environmental and social bottom line.

Read Full Post »

(Note: One quick clarification. The NGOs I refer to in this blog are not those who partner with companies but rather those activist NGOs. The Greenpeace, Oxfam, Global Witness type. Those NGOs who bug the living hell out of companies…)

So many businesses see activist NGOs as the enemy. Always biting at their heels and pointing out everything they do wrong. Sometimes these frustrations are legit as most companies do not go out to do harm. But they slip up or didn’t know about something bad on the ground and wham! – the activists are in the streets and getting everyone all worked up. The frustration boils over when these NGOs point out something that is wrong and then don’t applaud the company when they do the right thing. Or even worse, from a company perspective, when a company does something right and positive all on its own the activists still don’t support them or even give them much – not even a nod of approval. Why don’t these guys want to be friends? Why don’t they play nice? Or, in the extreme, why do these damn activists point out what is wrong without really providing a workable solution?

Answer: They are not meant to be your friend.

As simple as that. Don’t expect them to be your friend. If you do then you are asking the wrong question and misunderstanding their role in society completely. Their role is not to buddy up to business or tell you when you are doing a great job. They are here to be a societal watchdog that checks whether you are still sticking to your contract with society.

More on this contract with society in my next blog but for now…

The business contract with society is made up of the unwritten laws that governs behaviour and defines the role of business in society. It provides business with the space in which they can operate. it is not covered by government laws and regulations only. Governments tend to be reactive by correcting behaviour. Sometimes they try to be proactive but they mainly let the market regulate itself and force change when the damage is already done. The activist NGO’s are more proactive. They see damage done or potential damage done and drive towards more fundamental change in behaviour and laws. Yes, it is also reactive but they are looking at the future a bit more than governments tend to do by picking up on what is wrong at an early stage or potential danger based on science, research or previous experiences.

Before you become too critical of them. Think a bit about what these activists have done to “enforce” the societal contract and expectations and what they have done to stop and/or prevent damage to society and the main asset of society – the environment. Thank them for raising whale hunting. Thank them for highlighting exploitation in third world countries. Thank them for raising issue of imbalances and injustice in global trade system. Thank them for raising labor issues in China and elsewhere. Thank them for getting to those disaster areas quicker than you. Thank them for digging out the truth about wars and modern day genocide. Thank them for going after polluters who don’t care. Thank them for bringing to an end the curse of blood diamonds. Thank them for pointing out the inequalities when it comes to wages for men and women. Thank them for raising the issue of obesity. Of cancer. Thank them… For so many things. Thank them for covering your back while you are trying to live a life. A normal life.

These activist NGOs play a crucial role in ensuring companies (and others) focus on what is best for society as a whole. Unfortunately,  most people do not have the resources to check up on companies themselves and governments are lobbied to death, focused on the next election and/or fixing past problem – meaning they don’t have much time left looking ahead or even more broadly at what is good for society or not. They live in an election cycle and not geared towards looking at the long-term. Furthermore, government regulate and the majority of people don’t like government telling them what to do or not to do. Activists play a crucial role in sifting through the major challenges to highlight those crucial to society – and those who might need a closer look by people and governments.

No one is perfect. Companies make mistakes. They don’t know all the negative impacts they have. Did companies know of the potential threat of their emissions 20 years ago? No, we didn’t have the science behind it. Did companies know the exploitation of workers in factories in emerging markets 30 years ago? No they didn’t. I hope. Do we truly know the impact of GM crops? Did they know… etc. etc. We’ll know the impact we have in the future. However, companies do not measure their own impact or even always suffer from this impact. People suffer and activists and scientists measure, identify and advocate. Self regulation might work but self-analysis of impact won’t work because companies won’t always know what to measure. Their financial bottom line is not the same as the broader societal bottom line. But activists have a simple aim – preserving the planet in one way or another. No hidden agenda of making money or selling another product. No vested interest to make a quick buck. That is why they are pretty good at finding issues because they only represent those who suffer from impact and who can’t tell their own story – be it people or the environment.

(Note to cynics: Many have told me activists do it for themselves and for money. Sorry, but that is just not true. Show me the activists who made the list of billionaires. They do it for a cause and generally get paid next to nothing. Some of those NGOs who do work with or for business get paid loads but activists do not. Lastly, most of them do not take money from companies, such as Greenpeace, or have strict rules forbidding them from taking money from companies they campaign against, such as Oxfam. They are not perfect but most of them are not driven by either personal or organizations finances. Money for them is only relevant to how it enables them to affect change.)

Anyway… Activists do their research and have to be more prepared to reflect on the future and highlight the threats of today and how it will impact the future. They will make mistakes but they also have to be brave enough to look forward and take a stand before the problems become too much for society to handle. Identify, campaign and prevent. Simple.

They are not here to be the friend of companies. They are here to be the watchdogs. Understand what they want through change and how you impact this – that is the basis of your engagement. Companies can learn much from activists on what is wrong and how to improve their business. Hell, they even gave you a new market through the bottom of the pyramid thinking. But don’t expect them to love you and applaud you. They are not a client or a business partner. See them for who they are and celebrate the different view they offer. Maybe then you’ll know how to engage with them as well.

Until then… See you in the streets where I will applaud their protesting and thank them for watching my back while I try a different tactic in changing corporate behaviour and/or improve business impact – the activist inside.

Read Full Post »

Most people know that I am not the biggest Fairtrade fan. Heck, just read My beef with Fairtrade for more of my rantings on Fairtrade. But Brendan May (good guy also in the sustainability field – his Twitter feed is bmay) made me think a bit more about Fairtrade. He had a series of Twitter arguments to tackle Fairtrade and some of the claims they make. Brendan made a few good arguments that highlighted some of the flaws of Fairtrade compared to other certification system and the seriously flawed misunderstood claims most consumers have around Fairtrade. Especially some of the marketing claims made by Fairtrade and the assumption by Fairtrade and their supporters that they are the best out there to help farmers. Show some hard facts please Fairtrade and less unsubstantiated claims. A premium is no reflection on the “wealth” of farmers – we need a bit more on agreeing on measurements and then do a comparative study.

Okay, so Fairtrade make claims they shouldn’t and push their luck on a few things such as helping the poorest farmers (no they don’t, only those organized in cooperatives), strong environmental claims (there are others out there with much better environmental criteria) etc. But there is one area where I believe Fairtrade is fundamentally different from anyone else out there. They might have forgotten this basic principle over the years – especially since they have grown so big and started operating more like a traditional business. The foundation of Fairtrade is one that is very different from any of the other certification schemes out there and one that asks a much more fundamental question about the world trade system than any other system… And it comes down to the premium that Fairtrade pays.

Why pay this premium? Why did they start off with this idea of a premium in the first place? The figure is so artificial so why have it in there in the first place? To answer this you have to start with the world trade system and everything that is wrong with it in the agricultural commodities field.

Activists like Oxfam (a Fairtrade founder and supporter) have long argued that the global trade system is one of imbalance. The rich nations in Europe and the US have all the freedom in the world to pretty much do what they want. More importantly, they subsidize their agricultural sector to the hilt. Corn, sugar – you name it and they subsidize it. Don’t argue that subsidies are gone – that is a technicality as these countries spend billions of dollars each year on agricultural support where semantics rule. Call it research support but anything over a few billion dollars ending up in the pockets of large commercial farmers are subsidies dressed as research.

But back when the Fairtrade idea started the subsidies were even more blatant. The EU and US were happy to call it subsidies back then. So here you have a global agricultural commodity trade system where the rich countries support their farmers with subsidies because they can’t compete with farmers in emerging markets and developing countries – of course hidden as food security, national security, national interests, etc. The poorer countries? How did they fare on the subsidies front? Not so well…

Not only could they not support their farmers but the WTO rules (that they stupidly agreed to) stipulated that they couldn’t give their farmers subsidies in any case. Great trade system isn’t it? The rich can get richer thanks to the subsidies and the poor will remain poor – or get poorer.

This was where Oxfam and mates stepped in and created Fairtrade. Not to just give farmers a premium for their products but to address the fundamental injustice in the world trade system. The premium they pay and guarantee is a non-government subsidy. It helps farmers from poorer countries to compete against richer nations through a subsidy system that completely passes the WTO system by and is paid for by the people who also pay for the subsidies in their own system – richer nations. Pure genius.

The Fairtrade system has major flaws and I am not always that impressed with the work they do or the claims they make. But do not misunderstand their claims and the true benefit of this system. You need a system that undermines the global trade system if the trade system is so unjust as it is. Fairtrade is needed as long as the world trade system, in especially agricultural commodities, benefit the rich nations over the poor nations. There is no level playing field and the free market is a myth when it comes to argiculture – and Fairtrade plays a key role in trying to level the playing field a bit more. Not perfect but fundamental in trying to address something that is outside of the control of farmers in poorer markets.

No other system can claim the same. They might be better in helping farmers become more efficient or improve their environmental impact but none of the other systems actually addresses the much bigger challenge of a fundamentally flawed and imbalanced world trade regime. We need Fairtrade in a world where free trade does not exist in any other place but empty words and the worthless pages of world trade agreements.

So what about companies that argue against Fairtrade? Maybe they should look a little bit closer to their own supply chain. Do you sell food stuff? Anywhere in the US or EU? Do you by any agricultural products in any of these countries in the US or EU? I can guarantee you that your company benefit from subsidies being handed out to farmers in corn if you sell one single soda or chocolate in the US. Sip your subsidized wine Europe. Spread those subsidized jam and dairy products on those subsidized breads. Slap another subsidies steak on the bbq. The list goes on and on. Almost every single food and beverage company in the US and EU indirectly benefit from some form of subsidy through their subsidized supply chain. Why are they not arguing against subsidies of these farmers a little harder? It sounds like double standards to me that companies are against Fairtrade because of the subsidies but willing to take the subsidized products in Europe and the US and sell that to us. Another slice of double standards anyone?

I think Fairtrade was a genius idea. I just wish they would go back to their roots and remember why they were started in the first place – to take on a fundamentally flawed world trade regime. No other system can claim the same.

Read Full Post »

Give us a bit of water and some sand and we will build the Empire State building. It amazes me how innovative people in Africa can be. Natural born entrepreneurs. I know we have loads of issues and problems – and our own baggage to carry as well. But some of the things we do when we get our hands on something new is just “awesome”. (I have been in the US for too long! Picked that one up from my daughter…) The way people in Africa use mobile phones and the Internet in Africa is way beyond what any of us (or foreigners) predicted or dreamed of.

I know. I said that we in Africa are staying disconnected from the world. But that is just part of the story. Yes, we struggle to stay connected but don’t give us half a chance or we will rule the world. Once we get off World of Warcraft or Facebook. Boy are you lucky we don’t use that too often. Imagine people who like being connected to each other having the opportunity to do social networking while in different places! World here we come! I wonder if we will ever get off the Internet and still live and interact with each other if we were given that opportunity? Thank god for staying disconnected – it allows us to stay connected.

But I have two other stories about us and our version of web 2.0 to tell you about. The first one starts in Zimbabwe…

Yes. Zimbabwe. The country that is going through hell at the moment. And it has been going on for the last few years. But give someone a mobile phone and see us fly. OneWord Africa (one of my favourite sites – hidden agenda, I worked with them for a while a few years back. Hi Patricia!) reported on how people are using mobile phones to go hi-tech in campaigning for the upcoming election. It is not that easy to campaign in Zimbabwe at the moment. Crazy Uncle Bob isn’t what he used to be. Democracy isn’t what it used to be in Zimbabwe. He isn’t allowing much freedom for people to campaign for anyone other than him. And he instigates violence and riots against the opposition. So what are people to do?

Well. He made the mistake of allowing people to have mobile phone. And when you have some water and sand… We campaign. The people in Zimbabwe text each other left, right and centre to get the message across. But not just personal messages. No way. They do it African style. In a way to make sure people know where it comes from and who they all support. A group with no place to meet – but a group none the less. They text a message that identifies them as a supporter of a specific party or person. A simple “Vote for Simba” to highlight support for Makoni and a longer “Have you not suffered enough? Morgan is the solution” for Tsvangirai’s faithful. Simple, but beautiful and genius. Bob – you control the radio, television and newspapers, but you can’t control the keypads.

But they don’t stop there. No way. They go further. Ring-tones. Here it is more about opposition to Crazy Uncle Bob than support for an individual. The opposition play a local song, which asks in Shona: “How long will you vote for ZANU-PF?“. Pure genius. People phone you and others hear. One snag. Run when the phone rings and you are close to the police! Pure genius for keeping democracy alive though. I almost gave up hope on Zimbabwe, but the people proved me wrong again. And I like being wrong in cases like this.

My other story comes from one that was told to me by Martin Feinstein a few years back. He used to run Proudly South African, but now runs Enablis that tries to help entrepreneurs use the Internet to enhance their business – and support them financially and with management support. (I can’t vouch for them. They have good methodology, but I don’t know how effective they are. Just haven’t been keeping an eye on them. So this is not a plug for them.) He was telling me about this guy in Soweto who found a brilliant business idea – a pure win-win (almost). And all he needed was a computer and a shipping container for an office and storage. His plan? So simple. He used to go to one of the markets every single day to buy his stuff. And there were hundred, if not thousands, of women selling their goods. But they closed every single Monday to go to the wholesaler to buy their stuff they sell. They all got into the taxi’s and travelled into the city to buy their goods.

And what a loss for their business. No discount because they bought little amounts at a time. Loss of business for the day they were closed. And money for their travels. And the wholesale had to deal with so many people at the same time. His idea? Why not get them to place their order with him and he logs it into the computer and sends one order (with separate packaging) to the wholesaler. The wholesaler then delivers because it is a huge order and gives him 15% discount for the large order. That is his cut – the 15%. The women didn’t pay anything more than the usual and actually saved because they didn’t have to pay the taxi. And they were open on Monday’s for an extra day of business. Genius isn’t it? Everyone won. Okay – the taxi guys lost out, but less sympathy there with their driving skills… The plan was not rocket science, but still genius by the guy to see the opportunity. (Sorry – never got his name.) And what did he want from Martin and them? Just help to get a container and a computer. Less than $2,000 and bam you have a highly profitable business. I love that story – it tells us so much about the entrepreneurs hiding away all over Africa.

Okay, so it is not the typical web 2.0. But we are not “typical” in Africa either. We take technology and turn it into something that helps us make our society better – and ourselves better. The fastest growing mobile phone users in the world? USA? UK? Maybe India or China? Try Africa. We have few landlines. No problem – we’ll go wireless. Yes, we are disconnected from the world. But we are so connected between the ears.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »