Making markets work for the poor

The idea of NGO-corporate partnerships is enough to make much of the international development community more than a little uncomfortable. At a recent OCIC Breakfast Meeting, attendees pointed out that, after all, corporations and the global market in which they operate are often significant obstacles to development. But colleagues working in the growing realm of corporate partnerships are quick to point out that they can also be an important part of the solution.

The Breakfast Meeting focused on the Secure Livelihoods program, Making Markets Work for the Poor, a partnership between CUSO-VSO and Accenture. It is one of many emerging relationships that connect the international development sector to the corporate world. Established in 2006, this program is an excellent example of a Millennium Development Goal incarnate: “to develop a global partnership for development”.

The Making Markets Work program is an interesting social innovation on two levels:

  1. The pursuit of corporate partnership here in Canada diversifies an NGO’s funding portfolio.
  2. While on the ground, the program directly impacts the livelihoods of entrepreneurial Tanzanian farmers in Zanzibar.

Working with a local farmer’s association, a central aspect of this program aims to facilitate the development of a new supply chain in Zanzibar’s tourism industry: identifying local farmers as potential suppliers for hotels. Making Markets Work aims to support farmers in developing business relationships with local hotels to secure effective demand and effective supply.

For Canadian NGOs this type of partnership provides multi-pronged potential. Corporate partners can provide more than funding. In CUSO-VSO’s case, Accenture also provides a new pool of potential volunteers and expertise as well as specialized training. In addition, corporate partners can become effective advocates of a cause utilizing their high-powered rolodexes.

NetHope is another innovator in the sector that embodies the sentiment of global partnerships. A collaboration between 31 big leaders in the field of humanitarian assistance (including VSO), NetHope enables development organizations to utilize communications technology to better deliver their programs and services. Through innovative collaborations across the sector and corporate partnerships with big IT firms, NetHope has changed the technological landscape of emergency response, rural development and international cooperation.

When Kelvin Cantafio from NetHope presented at NetChange Week he described how the organization aims to be a catalyst among humanitarian organizations by facilitating collaboration to solve problems and share knowledge. NetHope’s aim is to identify how best to apply technology in order to facilitate connectivity in the developing world. It does this through five strategic programs:

  1. Connectivity
  2. Field capacity building
  3. Emergency relief services
  4. Shared services
  5. Innovation for development

Innovating on several levels, NetHope navigates the NGO-corporate partnership while making impressive strides in utilizing and delivering information and communications technologies for development.

While partnerships of this nature will suffer from their own challenges (e.g. who leads the program, the corporate partner or the local NGO?) they can also bring a very different set of program rigours: Is the project scalable? What is the return on investment? While the social impact measurement debate continues, the infusion of a new set of metrics has the potential to introduce new paths for innovation in the development sector.

Although nothing ever truly seems “new” and market-based development projects are well established, the socially innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the Making Markets Work program and NetHope’s cooperative approach provide a dynamic and exciting point from which to continue this dialogue and debate.

Hadley Nelles

Hadley works on the social innovation program at MaRS, helping social innovators and entrepreneurs connect with support services to turn their ideas into action. See more…