Private sector, meet poverty

Private sector, meet poverty
7 May, 2015

Marrying big business and development research

Ian Thornton

World Business Council on Sustainable Development meeting on a ‘social capital protocol’ for businesses – a framework of guidelines to understand the non-economic impacts they have on countries.

It’s hard not to be optimistic in a place like Vevey. An hour round the lake from Geneva, the town nestles amongst terraced vineyards, with snow covered mountains reflecting in the still-cold waters of Lac Leman.

I had been invited by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development to attend their meeting on a ‘social capital protocol’ for businesses – a framework of guidelines to understand the non-economic impacts they have on countries. And as the meeting progressed my optimism grew.

We, at UKCDS, have spent the best part of a year scoping out the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between research funders and companies in impact evaluation.

We know that companies are under increasing pressures to evaluate their impacts in developing countries; to manage reputational risk, to improve business practices, to justify corporate social responsibility budgets and to keep millennial staff happy.

We also know companies (if you forgive the horrible generalisation) struggle with certain things. They find it hard to measure impacts [rather than outputs and outcomes], assess the environmental and social impact of an investment or measure benefit back to business.

We feel that academics could help businesses in this area, by contributing the conceptual frameworks and methodologies they’ve fashioned for their own research.

In turn, there’s potentially a big win for research, and for development outcomes. Such collaboration could provide challenging research questions, new partners for public funders, new sources of data and a vast pathway to impact. Linda Scott, an academic at Oxford, is working with a group of companies whose value chains reach half the world’s working women! The potential here for positive change is huge.

It’s been a grind to get to this point; finding companies that are interested, finding the right people within those companies, and better understanding what they want from impact evaluation. And the road ahead isn’t smooth either. There will be tricky discussions around intellectual property, ethics, timeframes, ‘good enough’ research, and some real conceptual differences.

Discussion in Vevey, for example, touched on valuation of social impact, whether all sorts of different impacts (jobs, training, infrastructure, etc) could be converted into $ values, and potentially even netted off against environmental impact at one site, or across one company… Should building a school in Zambia and clearing forest in Bolivia, for example, be a credit and debit in the same balance sheet? I can feel some academics wince!

But, my optimism remains.  At Vevey the companies’ thinking wasn’t that far ahead of ours and appetite to collaborate is there. We’re turning a corner with this project, and plan a launch event in the next few months. If you’re a business reading this and want to get involved, we’re still looking for interested companies – so please get in touch.

I believe this is going to be big, and going to be important, so you’d do well to shape it from the off.

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