What can CARE do for business? – Taking partnerships to the next level in Pakistan

by 09th Oct 2014
A woman receiving payment for her work through the Easypaisa mobile banking system A woman receiving payment for her work through the Easypaisa mobile banking system © CARE/Wolfgang Gressman

Last month I was in Islamabad, supporting the efforts of the CARE International team there, who have led a very successful set of engagements with the private sector to address social issues in Pakistan. In a country beset by a number of political and social tensions, CARE has decided to flip the traditional paradigm to ask, instead of what companies “can do for us”, what “CARE can do for business”. It’s a bold move, and one which is so far paying dividends.

Since CARE Pakistan set up in 2005, it has interweaved relief interventions (providing shelter, food, medicine) with resilience interventions (providing access to finance to help start-up income generating activities, or offering micro-insurance to people previously cut out of this particular supply chain). It’s an approach that naturally brought CARE squarely into contact with the private sector and onto their agenda.

What then distinguished CARE Pakistan was taking the position of not presenting a suite of ready-made projects for funding, but instead asking companies a different set of questions…

What were the company’s strategic business interests in Pakistan? What costs were they incurring in order to procure, manufacture, and distribute products and services? What risks were they assessing when advancing their own footprint across the vast demographic of Pakistan? – targeting as they were, and continue to do, those communities residing at what had become known back then as the world’s ‘Base of the Pyramid’ – the 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day.

Turn the clock forward to 2014, and many of these same companies, with whom CARE struck up a dialogue several years back, attended a ‘Round Table’ event last month, hosted by my colleagues in Islamabad, but also supported by no less than seven institutions from the donor community, each contributing to a collective aspiration about how, together, they can best lift the many millions of Pakistani citizens currently displaced, vulnerable and earning minimal incomes, out of poverty.

Taking partnership to the next level

CARE Pakistan is already a few years into a partnership with Telenor and Tameer Bank, for example, leveraging ICT technology to set up mobile banking structures in rural parts of the country. The initiative is called Easypaisa and currently Tameer services 800,000 clients through this ‘branchless banking’ facility.

This was a partnership spawned out of a larger ‘cash for work’ CARE-managed programme, to help local women who were affected by the 2010 floods gain access to income and employment, through the maintenance of new roads. And it is a partnership that is now looking to move up to its next level.

So how might the outreach for mobile banking get taken to scale? And just what other products do rural populations require?

These questions may not be new ones. However, the fact that they are being asked by all sectors – private, public and civil society; and the fact that, in Islamabad last week at least, those at the table were prepared to answer them together, and make suggestions for solutions based not just over the longer term, but also involving how the core business operations of some of the country’s largest companies might need to change – stands out for me as progress.

Can such ‘progressive’ fora bring about a scenario where all parties walk away content?

  • CARE helps access displaced communities to new markets, representing their best needs, and ensuring their rights are protected;
  • Companies, in the process, reduce expenditure (and therefore increase profits) by establishing sustainable market penetration;
  • Host governments benefit from investing in such collaborations over the longer term, as their local economies grow as result;
  • Bilateral donors (represented last week by several international development departments, including the UK, Canada and Australia) also benefit through the multiplier effect that their investment to the process is leveraging – a ‘value for money’ proposition that their own tax-payers, whose money they are using, are increasingly coming to see as a positive one.

Is this the sort of three-way ‘enlightened self-interest’ between sectors that we should be promoting elsewhere? I believe it is.

Partnerships of ‘enlightened self-interest’

Cross-sector partnerships are not without their pitfalls. Every global entity such as CARE adopts a code of conduct around the types of industries with whom we would take an investment, or forge a partnership – and so, too, do large multinational corporations, and institutions such as the World Bank, when they consider their partners.

Partnerships take time, resources, senior leadership commitment, and, depending on the outfit you happen to work for, there can be some clear ‘no-go’ partners (or entire industries). But there can also be those where a more apportioned balance of risk is taken in terms of any negative impacts the partner might have on the ground, against the amount of positive influence you might have over how that partner operates in any given context.

It can be a tricky path to navigate and sustain such cross-sector initiatives and relationships, and we don’t yet hear as much as would be comforting in terms of the genuine stories of success. We need more pioneers, and more platforms to draw attention to the issues and to the opportunities.

Under these current circumstances, one key question for NGOs alike should be: “If an NGO is able to help reduce a risk (and therefore by association, a cost) that a company trying to reach a country’s poorest people will incur, and can do so in a way that empowers the very same poorest people that the NGO is seeking to serve, then shouldn’t this be the starting point for what we take as a cross-sector partnership?”

In many ways, we cannot say what might unfold – on any level – in the complex and fluid societal structures in countries like Pakistan. But what if this approach really does unlock some of the answers for the next generation of sectoral leaders and decision-makers – and in so doing, make a real difference for the poorest people by ensuring that some of the hardest-to-reach places in this country are once again open for business?

Tim Bishop

Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, my role involves supporting programme quality for CARE’s women’s economic empowerment work across the Asia Pacific region, providing strategy development and capacity building for teams, and convening and facilitating partnerships with the private sector. I also lead on various external affairs initiatives in the region.

I joined CARE International UK in September 2006 to set up their Private Sector Engagement Team, which initiated a range of global partnerships and sustainable development initiatives for CARE. In the time since, I have led several internal initiatives aimed at improving CARE’s programme quality and global connectivity. Most recently this has included the establishment of a new area of programming called Resilient Market Systems, analysing how to improve CARE’s women’s economic empowerment work within the context of humanitarian crises.

Prior to joining CARE, I spent 10 years in London, working in public, private and non-profit sector roles, largely specialising in corporate communications, fundraising and marketing functions.

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Email: bishop@careinternational.org