Ian Thornton

We’re delighted to announce that our project on Assessing Business Impact for Development (ABID) is formally up and running.

We have lift off. We’re delighted to announce that our project on Assessing Business Impact for Development (ABID) is formally up and running.

Having had our first Advisory Group meeting two weeks ago, I wanted to share with you some of the details on where we’ve come from, and a little of where we’re hoping to go.

Readers of this blog will recall from my post in May that we’ve been scoping opportunities to use academic research to better evaluate business impact in international development.

Over the last year we’ve been tracking down and interviewing 40 senior executives across FTSE 100 firms, to ask:

“What question [on your impact in international development] would you like to be able to answer, that you currently cannot, or do not?”

The upshot of this has been two-fold:

1. A number of fascinating, if knotty, challenges that businesses are finding hard to tackle

2. An Advisory Group of senior representatives from seven public research funders (including DFID), and ten companies, from Coca Cola to Syngenta, who have kindly agreed to help us think through these issues

The project as a whole aims to define a series of research questions on the impact of business in development that UK researchers can sink their teeth into.

In the future, we may think about some sort of joint funding instrument to support academics to answer these questions. But with the funding climate at present, we’re starting on just identifying the questions…

Our first Advisory Group meeting took place on 14 October and highlighted a couple of key points:

The Group members clarified that the organisations’ diverse incentives overlap enough to be worth trying to define research questions.

Of course there’ll be different priorities, for example research funders want to fund academically excellent research, but businesses sometimes need faster, practical answers. We need to be in the sweet spot between these, and we wanted to check that finding the sweet spot would be worth it. It was a relief to see people around the table nodding in agreement.

The Group discussed seven themes synthesised from our conversations over the last year, and agreed that we’d focus on two:

1. Developing norms and standards for environmental and social impact assessment.

Let’s say I’m a supermarket buying flowers from Kenya, and mangoes from India, and I’d like to be able to rigorously compare my social and environmental impact across these product lines. To do this, or to compare between more diverse things (building a school vs providing solar lighting, for example) might mean moving towards an overarching framework for assessing impact, or agreed indicators for impact, or even, an agreed approach for valuation of impact.

2. Assessing the impact of multiple businesses in one location.

This comes in two parts:

(i) Understand the impact of partnerships between businesses. E.g. a mobile money provider and an energy provider work together to provide pay-as-you-go solar: what impact has this had for the businesses and for the customers?

(ii) Assess the impacts of a cluster of diverse businesses in one district or region. So, if a mine, an education technology company and a bank are all in one district, what does the combination of opportunity mean for people on the ground? Does it add to more than the sum of the parts? Are there any unintended knock-on effects?

The opportunity is important. The real work starts now however: the shortlisted issues above are all enormous, complicated landscapes with lots of players involved.

Before the next meeting in February, we need to map these, and provide sensible suggestions on where UK academics could make a valuable contribution. If you’re an academic, consultancy, NGO or any other in this space, we’d love to hear from you.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch directly.