In this dispatch of Markets For Good | Notes From The Field, our guest contributor, Ambassador Curtis S. Chin, approaches the information infrastructure topic from a policy perspective. Using developing, high-growth economies as a backdrop, he focuses on three levers that business, governments and the social sector need to manage well for equitable economic growth. Ignoring them, he says, can undermine the efforts to drive both growth and “good,” together. Drawing from senior roles in government, business and civil society, Ambassador Chin issues a self-assessment challenge to each sector, starting witn a new conceptualization of “brics.”
Markets For Good focuses on how the social sector can better use and share information to improve outcomes and change lives. I’ve spent the past two decades in and out of many sectors, including many years in multi-national business and not quite four years as a diplomat and U.S. Treasury official in the Obama and Bush Administrations. As U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), I sought to drive change at that international financial institution, which focuses on spurring economic growth and reducing poverty in the Asia and Pacific region through more than US$10 billion per annum in loans, grants and technical assistance to governments.
While the intertwined nature of business with economic policy and quality of life may be obvious to many, the implications for the more narrow topic of data and information infrastructure may appear less obvious. But they aren’t for me.
A critical and recurring mission of mine has been the broad advocacy for greater partnership across sectors and an explicit advocacy for high-quality, transparent flows of data and the sharing of the information in ways that break down bureaucratic barriers. The ultimate goal is to change economies and lives.
Building with “brics” (lower case)
In 2001, an economist at Goldman Sachs named Jim O’Neill was credited for coining the acronym BRIC, or “B-R-I-C,” for Brazil, Russia, India and China, in the report, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.”
We know what happened after that: The BRIC acronym caught on and recently expanded, with South Africa formally taking its place as a member of the now five-nation grouping.
“Who’s next?” is a constant question I receive.
My response is often a little different from what people expect. I tell them that I spend much less time worrying about which nation will next join the BRIC, and I spend more time thinking about the challenges to growth posed by what I describe as a new lower-case “bric.” That is a small letter “b-r-i-c” for bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption.
(For now, we’ll leave aside the “s” I have added to the “bric” for increasing and re-emergent “sectarianism” as seen in recent years, whether in Iraq, Nepal, India or Burma – also known as Myanmar.)
Overcoming these constraints to growth is not easy anywhere, particularly given vested interests and “how things are done in our sector.” But one critical assist will be the ability of all sectors of society, including the non-governmental organization community, to work together and share information. Creative partnerships – whether on data collection or service delivery – among stakeholders who do not necessarily always see eye-to-eye need to be explored.
Yet, despite all the growing talk, including within and with the development community, of the importance of public-private partnerships, I find there often remains a general lack of understanding all around – business, government and the social sector – as to what motivates or incentivizes the other. This deficit, or “understanding gap,” suggests three areas for self-assessment.
How transparent are you? Even something as simple as a lack of understanding of one another’s budget cycles and calendars can become a major stumbling block. How transparent is government in its dealings with others, including with other government departments? How transparent also are business and civil society? With due respect to confidential strategies, mission-sensitive intelligence and proprietary information, I find that data and analyses can indeed be shared more freely. Cost savings and greater effectiveness and impact can be among the benefits. Something as simple as posting information on a user-friendly website, whether contract awards or contact information, can be an easy and important step forward.
The extent to which each of us, regardless of sector, understands and works transparently with and within a bureaucracy, a business or a NGO in a given market will vastly improve one’s reputation in that and other geographies. Reputation travels.
During my time on the Board of Directors of the Asian Development Bank, it was an ongoing struggle to push that institution to be more transparent in areas ranging from public disclosure of all contract awards to allowing the voluntary release of formal statements delivered by members of the Board fully explaining their votes for or against a proposed loan, program or policy. The reality though is that one stakeholder’s concept of “transparency” may well be simply seen as more costs and more trouble by another.
Still, let’s not give up hope. Sure, many NGOs and development agencies still insist on their own institution-specific reporting requirements, despite efforts and accords to speed harmonization and sharing of data. Yet, progress is being made.
After a “speedy” two years’ process, I was able to help push through the first ever major partnership agreement between UNICEF and ADB. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) provided a framework for the two organizations to build on existing cooperation and engage in joint technical assistance, projects and program work in selected countries and sectors, to the benefit of disadvantaged children across the region. This was to include promotion of research and analysis and the development of “knowledge products” linked to their common activities. Now more than two years since the signing of that MOU, the question remains as to what has happened since then? Both organizations will want to transparently report back on progress to date.
You should also ask yourself a question: Are you clearly communicating how regulations and policies that you advocate for are to the benefit of people, whether on a direct level or with respect to a nation’s economy, its industry and its jobs?
How credible are you? No individual sector has the monopoly on socially responsible behavior. Or on trust. Data – and widely spread anecdotes – tell of how both government and civil society representatives have acted in ways not necessarily in the interest of the populations that they are meant to serve. In some countries, government leaders are trusted less than business executives.
If you are from the private sector and seeking to partner with government, to what degree have you shown that you understand a government’s own challenges and its priorities for the near and mid-term? In many an emerging market, governments particularly in Asia, have taken to five-year plans, setting forth critical priorities. To what degree have you understood these plans, or even helped shape them?
As an example, every recipient of assistance from the likes of the World Bank and the ADB has a negotiated and agreed upon roadmap forward, or “country partnership strategy.” This publicly available document lays out priorities for the next few years. In the policy area, this could include spelling out which sectors will receive a so-called policy loan – for example, to shape the regulations related to the energy sector or financial sector.
With the right knowledge and insights, private and social sector players can be important and credible sources of information for developers of strategies, or for the actual providers of technical assistance or other support given to a government under a policy loan.
All of these efforts speak to helping define oneself as a credible, responsible partner.
At the end of the day though, I said then and I say now, that corporate social responsibility is not about what you do with your money. It is about how you make your money. Being a member of the public or social sectors also does not give one an automatic “pass” when it comes to “responsible conduct.”
This question applies equally to business and social investors. For civil society, variations of the same questions apply. How did you finance or raise the donor dollars for you efforts? And how well do you treat your own employees, above and beyond what you are able to pay them.
To be a credible partner, you will need to have and be seen as having conducted your affairs in an honest, transparent and fair manner.
How committed are you? Do you have the long-term staying power and the commitment to succeed in a given market? Everyone says they are committed to stay, or to help. But what are your metrics – from staff retention to re-investment dollars – and does the data prove this out? It’s not just “show me the money,” but show me the commitment. This is a particularly important point in emerging markets, where foreign businesses, government aid programs and NGO offices come and go. But it also applies at home to your visibility among community members at the neighborhood level.
Do you have the capacity and will for long-term engagement necessary for slow, if not always steady, progress? Will your people on the ground now be there long enough to build the proper relationships to collaborate on policy? That is, do you have the long-term commitment – and critical Board and management support – to raise the necessary budget, develop the design systems, and create the incentives for long-term progress in a fast-changing world that often overemphasizes short-term results?
It is necessary to demonstrate commitment at both the top and the bottom and to build relationships. This means walking the ground with people who live in the targeted communities, not just visiting as an “expert” or as a fly-in-and-fly-out consultant. The organizations that succeed are the ones that do this the best.
When it comes to Credibility and Commitment, there is no better measure or sign of both than having people in country with local knowledge and local language skills. For all sectors, it is people on the ground, after all, reading local media, socializing with others in the industry, and meeting and engaging with local counterparts, who are best positioned to anticipate changes down the road.
It is time to come together to help spur innovation and entrepreneurship, to increase the flows of investment and re-investment dollars, to focus on people and on what one does best, and to be true partners for progress.
How now to improve perceptions, and the reality, of your own engagement in and across different sectors? Demonstrated transparency, credibility, and commitment will help get you there. These three levers are also the fundamental drivers for more effective information sharing.