Thursday, 18 November 2010

Private Sector Ending Hunger?

Can the corporate sector really be serious about ending hunger in the world? This is something that has taken up a lot of news coverage in the Netherlands lately as a group of investors has announced it will 'end hunger in Benin by 2018'...

The Hunger Project has been supported by private investors, companies, impact investors and 'business angels' for a long time. In fact for THP Netherlands, corporate investments account for over about 50% of our income. We have mobilised a group of some 50 companies that are committed to scale up the epicenter strategy in Benin. This programme aims at reaching out to some 750.000 people in about ten years to make them self-reliant in their quest to end hunger and poverty. This strategy has been used by THP since the mid 1990s and has led to the establishment of over 120 rural centers for integrated development, called 'epicenters'.

What is it that attracts companies to invest in ending hunger? Corporate social responsibility is not new. It is a form of doing business that takes the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit to the centre stage of the company. How can we do business that takes good care of the employees, contributes to a vibtant society or local community, is sensitive to the environment and still gives enough economic return on investment - all in a sustainable way?
One form of CSR is investing in social projects and raising awareness on social issues throughout the company.

The businesses that invest in ending hunger and poverty in Benin with THP are taking this very seriously. They have made a strong financial commitment of at least 10,000 Euros per year (some up to 100,000) to this end, but also spend time on working through the principles of empowerment that underpin the approaches of THP. Our approach is really to tap into the capacities and energy of local communities to take development into their own hands. We actively promote entrepreneurship by providing micro-credit, building local community leadership (especially in women) and mobilising communities to envision their own social action. The companies investing in THP are also invited to do empowerment workshops with their employees, facilitated by THP. These so-called Vision-Commitment-Action workshops encourage employees to speak their own personal and organisational ambitions and help to shape the path towards this vision. THP has also piloted a quick-scan with companies to work at employee satisfaction, seeking out to enhance those aspects in the organisation that 'make the day' for the company. One of the leading investors in the group also mobilises their employees to organise a giant sponsor run (The NPM Run), this year gathering over 600 runners in Amsterdam, who in turn mobilised 200,000 Euros.

What the investors in THP get in return of their investment is the impact in Benin. They see how their contribution and commitment to an empowerment approach reaches out and impact on lives. They also get opportunities to network among other investors and see an increase of social commitment within their companies due to increased team work and sense of belonging. They also help THP to stay on the ball with our programmes and be clear and concrete about the goals and commitments in Benin. The investment group acts as a good sparring partner and coach for out team in the Netherlands and in Benin to take development as a business.

This all looks very rosy, but what are some of the challenges in all this? Well, entrepreneurs think 'big' and want to expand fast. We want to take caution with expansion not to stretch the organisational capacity and move with care. THP deals with social processes, which need carefull attention. Moving people is not the same as moving boxes. Also, poverty is a complex issue, which needs attention and change at different levels. Although THP focuses primarily at grass roots level, we do not want to neglect the bigger picture in which development takes place: issues of local governance, markets, rights etc. It is not easy to package this complex story in oneliners that attract businessmen and women.

Nonetheless, working with the corporate investors in THP is very rewarding and enriching for our organisation, and really contributes to ending chronic hunger and poverty. For us it is a winning team and we look forward to extended partnerships with the business community in the Netherlands. We also seriously look at broadening the partnerships with private sector into the core business of the corporations. Here we would like to collaborate with actors in a value chain that intend to incorporate the notion of people, planet and profit throughout their production process and link this to partners of THP: local communities, farmers and local businesses. This base of the pyramid approach looks to pilot or roll out innovations that offer business opportunities for those at the lower end of the chain. Enough opportunities ahead of us...

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