If companies are to provide effective development solutions, then they need to be set the bar a bit higher

Let us assume for the time being that Accenture Development Partners is correct (see last View from the Middle) and we are living in a converging global economy where corporations will be playing an increasing role in solving development problems.

If that is the case, the question for this month is why are no corporations launching the development equivalent of Persil or the Mars bar?

What they are doing, if I can paraphrase, and use a metaphor, is working with the equivalent of a small corner shop in Darlington (and no disrespect intended to Darlington).

They help the “storekeeper” hand-produce, in a back room with some help from local people, small quantities of soap powder or chocolate that they then sell through their shop to customers from the local area.

There’s nothing wrong with this “initiative”, but it lacks ambition, vision and scale. It’s not going to solve the problems of Darlington or County Durham, let alone affect the economy of the north-east of England.

If you look at the guidelines produced by corporate responsibility departments, this lack of ambition is clear, and much of it is a function of the budgets made available to them.

Growth engines

Many of them are explicit about wanting to work on a small-scale, local, level with local communities and through community-based organisations (CBOs). Where there is an emphasis on enterprise development, it tends to be in this form: “We will support projects that support the development of small (and micro) enterprises to enable people in the communities to create or obtain employment.”

Now small businesses can be great engines of employment growth, so this approach should certainly not be rejected out of hand. And the history of aid and development has shown that bottom-up efforts tend to work much better over time than the major top-down initiatives – the money from which, sadly, has a tendency to disappear into Swiss bank accounts.

So how can we square this circle and deploy the brand development strengths of corporations to deliver bottom-up programmes that address development problems in ways that can then be dramatically scaled up once there is proof of effectiveness?

It is worth reminding ourselves that the global brands, as we know them today, did not spring into existence with globally coordinated advertising campaigns. They did not have the sort of ubiquity then that means that you now find Coca-Cola in the smallest corner store in the remotest village in Africa.

When a company – especially a marketing-led company – launches a new product or brand, it is very rarely on a global scale. It starts in one jurisdiction – sometimes in a subset of the jurisdiction for test-marketing purposes.

This is for reasons of production, packaging and labelling regulations, distribution and availability of promotional media. The effort in getting all of these things right for multiple jurisdictions may not be worthwhile if the product or brand is not going to work in the marketplace.

Once a brand has shown that there is take-up in the marketplace it is normal to see it rolled out – to the rest of the country if the test market is in a region, or to neighbouring countries.

Multiple brands

But it was not always like this. If you go back only as far as the 1980s, many of the giant consumer goods companies – Unilever and Procter & Gamble amongst them – had a proliferation of products and brands around the world.

In some cases this was as the result of acquisitions, in others it was the result of local product development. But over the last 30 years there has been a huge move to standardise and align brands with the same name being used everywhere. See Cif, Snickers and Starburst – formerly Jif, Marathon and Opal Fruits respectively in the UK market.

If we were to apply this approach to development projects and corporate responsibility budgets, there is a clear need for much more strategic thinking. Low-level, CBO-type projects should really only be entered into if the company can see that there are clear lessons to be learned that could be rolled out to other organisations and ultimately worldwide.

Relate effort to market

For that, companies need to have a strategic view of their corporate responsibility. In the same way that Mars is a confectionery company and operates on that basis, organisations need to take a view about what market their CR efforts are in – and how efforts to develop that market relate to the overall organisation and the interests of the shareholders.

I suspect that few companies take a fully strategic view of corporate responsibility. And whilst all of the major companies now have guidelines, the individual projects tend to be applicant-driven. The flood of applications that is received by CR teams are held up against the guidelines and then they either succeed or fail. But it is all too reactive.

The marketing department does not wait for independent product developers to come in with bright ideas; they have product development road maps and are proactive in looking for the next big hits.

This approach – if Accenture is correct – is one that needs to be transferred from the marketing department to the CR/sustainability department if corporations are really going to play a major part in solving the world’s development challenges.

Howard Sharman is a senior consultant with Advance Aid.  

Africa  Aid  Aid agencies  Company plans  development 

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