Category Archives: Corporate social responsibility

The Story of Stuff


Here’s something that got me thinking:

The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns, with a special focus on the United States. All the stuff in our lives, beginning from the extraction of the resources to make it, through its production, sale, use and disposal, affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues and calls for all of us to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something. It’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

Naturally, the topic is far from new to GlobaLab. I have been looking at the political economy of globalisation for months now. I agree with many of this movie’s positions, and love its simple and entertaining tone. Well done to Annie Leonard and to all those involved for translating into an easily-graspable short film some of the complexities of the global economy, particularly the commodity chains that form the backbone of world trade.

Yet, I can’t help pointing out: it’s not that simple. Describing the problem as one of ever-collapsing natural resources and abused Third World workers fighting the evil and conspiratorial plans of multinational corporations with the help of selfless international NGOs might look good on film, but is it an actual reflection of the real world?

I am not a great admirer of corporations, or a blind believer in the transparency of their CSR policies, but branding them all as Earth-destructors does not do justice to the good many of them do (in terms of job-creation, economic growth, research into innovation – including into clean energy), nor will it help change the way they behave.

And similarly, the omnipresent sanctification of NGOs fails to disclose their deep accountability limits and underlying political interests. According to One World, the NGO sector scores lower than the corporate and intergovernmental sectors when it comes to transparency, so it is legitimate to question many of their claims, especially their Doomsday positions on the environment and development.

But on one point I fully agree: consumerism lies at the centre of this system, so if we want to change it we have to start thinking of creative ways to change people’s attitude towards stuff…

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy: http://www.chrisjordan.com/)

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

Enterprising answers to development

Tomato vendor, African market

A few good sources exploring the themes of social entrepreneurship and microcredit.

Beyond Good Intentions reproduces an article from the International Trade Forum on innovative approaches to reduce poverty through trade, which are bringing business, NGOs, government and aid agencies together. Examples include Bespoke Experience, a social enterprise creating high-end tourism lodges in Mozambique, and using its profits to enable communities to work their way out of poverty.

NOW and PBS review the debate on microcredit, and whether it’s really pro-poor or simply exploiting the most vulnerable, with a focus on Compartamos, the Mexican non-profit turned for-profit microfinance institution at the centre of a fierce debate. It contains an excellent interview on the subject with Muhammad Yunus, the world-renowned founder of the Grameen Bank and father of microcredit, who also wrote another good piece on Social Business Entrepreneurs here.

A fourth sector?

 The Fourth Sector Network (courtesy: http://www.fourthsector.net)

While we’re still struggling to get the third sector officially recognised in most policy circles (the European Commission, for one, has no Directorate General dealing directly with this ever-expanding sector), there are some who are already envisaging the rise of a fourth one:

Over the past few decades, the boundaries between the public (government), private (business), and social (non-profit/non-governmental) sectors have been blurring, while a Fourth Sector of organization has been emerging. The archetypal Fourth Sector model is sometimes referred to as a For-Benefit organization, and the sector itself is also referred to as the For-Benefit Sector. There are a wide variety of other Fourth Sector models and approaches, bearing different names and emphasizing or embodying different aspects of the For-Benefit model.

Here‘s a comprehensive list of what typology of organisation is included in the sympathetic patterns of the fourth sector. The idea has triggered over-excited reviews in the American press, interest from educational circles, and of course the odd glance from the donor community.

Personally, I like the term and its ideal mash-up of exciting initiatives (triple bottom line, Open Source, sustainability, social enterprises, etc.) that are transforming the way the third sector operates. Yet, it is not very clear why an entire new classification is needed, especially for organisations like cooperatives and social enterprises, which have been around for ages.

Are we witnessing the rise of an entirely new sector, or the slow and painful transformation of the old third sector? And if a fourth sector were to emerge, shouldn’t we be more clear about which parts of the third sector are excluded, and why?

Italy’s buffoon

Beppe Grillo

To the outside observers, Italy is a country of majestic artworks, stunning landscapes, beautiful cities and delicious food. But to the insiders, all these appear trivial amenities compared to the ever-present decay of the country’s public and private sectors. Corruption is still rampant, despite the bout of inquiries and arrests that characterized the 1990s. Politicians and businessmen are often embroiled in obscure dealings surrounding company takeovers, sales or mergers. No one is ever found guilty, and even if someone is, the likes of him (for it is always a man) ending up in prison are pretty slim.

Given this picture, you would expect most media-savvy journalists to be up in arms, ready to seize the opportunity given by a political or commercial scandal to uncover some dirt, clean up the nation, and become rich and famous along the way. Instead, the tightly controlled Italian media (either in the hands of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, or under the watchful eye of the major political parties in power) appear generally more interested in the sexual habits of the country’s many showgirls, or in the latest fashion trends. Scandals gain complexity over time, like in the case of Parmalat’s collapse, and slowly become incomprehensible to the layman. People end up loosing interest in the matter. Eventually the spotlight turns to another scandal and a dark fog of silence descends on the entire affair. This way, the show can go on.

Not many people dare speak the truth, but one such man is Beppe Grillo. A comedian by profession, Grillo has long ago embarked on a crusade to do what other journalists don’t do: point an angry finger at those who are responsible for the ruinous state of the country. Banned for obvious reasons from performing on television, he has turned to the internet – and in particular to his blog, which Technorati ranks among the world’s 20 most visited blogs – to reach an even wider and more politically-motivated audience. Bloomberg’s Flavia Krause-Jackson and Chiara Remondini have written an excellent piece about his efforts to uncover bad management practices in Italy’s major companies.

“There are signs the public backlash against the excesses of public officials has started to effect change in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi, who met with Grillo shortly after winning the 2006 election, cut his own annual pay by 30 percent to 86,102 euros ($115,575), and extended the reductions to 102 ministers, deputies and undersecretaries. Italy’s ruling classes will need more than lower salaries to restore their reputations. That may explain why many of the 81 shows Grillo has scheduled for concert halls and small-town football stadiums this year have sold out.”

While in today’s colloquial language a buffoon denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person, in the Middle Ages the court jester performed an important political role, that of using irony and humorous metaphors to reprimand the king on his errors and advise him on policy matters. It was accepted norm that the buffoon should not be punished for his statements, for no one else was in a position to speak so bluntly to the ruler, lest he be charged with treason. Grillo is in every sense a modern buffoon, whose jests and mocking accusations should be heard more often by the Italian ruling and ruled classes alike.

From Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

The Future - CG4TV

FreePint printed this article by Giulio Quaggiotto and Pierre Wielezynski – both linked to/working for the World Bank – on how Web 2.0 is changing the face of development. This is the first article of its kind, as far as I know, and it’s also the subject of my dissertation here at the London School of Economics and Political Science, so I am glad I’ll be one of the pioneers on the subject. It’s in fact more than this: it’s a manifesto for the future of development. 

I am reproducing the article below for your perusal. It’s an excellent and most comprehensive review of the subject, and I thoroughly recommend it.

The transition from Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

One interesting aspect – which is sometimes forgotten – behind O’Reilly Media’s coining of the term ‘Web 2.0‘ is that it stemmed from an analysis of the companies that survived the crash of the dot-com bubble. Not so much of a futuristic vision, then, but rather a reflection on tried and tested business models (as well as technologies) that weathered the storm to produce the likes of Google and Amazon.

What if one were to apply the same type of analysis to the development sector? One could argue that we are currently witnessing a crisis of the traditional aid and international governance models, which could have far-reaching consequences somewhat reminiscent of the dot-com crash. At the same time, the emergence of new approaches (such as microfinance and online campaigning) may herald the beginning of a whole brave new world – indeed, it would seem that the era of the wisdom of crowds and the Long Tail, as defined by O’Reilly, has caught on in the non-profit world. Out with Development 1.0, the era of the World Bank, the UN, the IMF (but also the traditional non-governmental organisations (NGOs)), and in with Development 2.0, whose ambassador could perhaps be Grameen Bank, funded by Noble Prize winner Muhammud Yanus, or Gapminder’s founder Hans Rosling with his iconoclastic zeal to deconstruct established development myths.

Intriguing as the prospect of identifying clear-cut boundaries might be, the reality is that it’s probably too early to tell whether we are truly witnessing the emergence of a new development paradigm (see here for a similar conclusion). Rather, we are in a fluid, transition phase where traditional NGOs and development institutions are testing the waters of Web 2.0, while, on the more innovative end of the spectrum, new start-ups are emerging whose entire business model is based on Web 2.0 opportunities. Somewhere in the middle are ‘hybrid’ projects that span the two worlds. For instance, Oxfam’s recent campaign to support Ethiopian farmers featured traditional campaigning tools such as faxes, postcards and demonstrations, but also shared pictures via Flickr and a YouTube duel with Starbucks.

Take a look at the interactive list of the ’59 Smartest Orgs Online’, which ranks non-profits based on their ‘Web 2.0 smarts’ – the extent to which they integrated Web 2.0 in their business model. On any given day, it will feature established organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International, alongside the likes of MobileActive.org (‘cell phones for civic engagement’) or microloans site Kiva. Indeed, the list is perhaps the best place to test the pulse of ‘Development 2.0’, together with Change.org‘s intriguing tag cloud.

If it’s too early to talk about winners or losers, it’s still interesting to apply O’Reilly’s model of key Web 2.0 patterns and competencies to the development world. It may highlight emerging trends and identify areas that may be waiting for the birth of a Google equivalent for the development sector.

The Long Tail of development services

O’Reilly invites Web 2.0-savvy companies to ‘reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the centre, to the Long Tail and not just the head’. The emblem here is eBay. This concept has interesting applications in the development context. Traditionally, managing micro-donations has proven to be challenging for non-profits, whose back end was not designed to guarantee to, say, a donor in the UK, that their money will go to found a specific project in a given village in Rwanda. ‘Adopt a school’ type of projects have often incurred very high overheads. In come the likes of Kiva.org, which uses the Web to cut out intermediaries and allow for direct donations to small businesses in the developing world, or GlobalGiving, which guarantees that ’85-90% of your donation gets to local project leaders within 60 days’. This way, even donors with niche interests can find a way to support the cause that is dear to their heart through the Web. The same desire to cater for niche interests lies behind Change.org, a social networking site that aims to foster ‘a fundamental change in the way people engage in social issues’ by allowing grassroots activists to network with others who share their interests. It will be interesting to monitor how these new business models will fare and, on the other hand, how traditional NGOs will react to the challenge.

The race for development data

What do Amazon, eBay and MapQuest have in common? They are backed up by the largest specialised database in their respective markets (books, auctions, maps, etc), O’Reilly observes. For this reason, he adds, ‘the race is on to own certain classes of core data’. The smartest companies are the ones who let users add value to their data through mashups or other types of interaction (e.g. book reviews on Amazon). Once again, there are intriguing parallels here with what is happening in the development world. Take, for instance, conservation – an area traditionally plagued by the lack of data interoperability. A number of initiatives are emerging, such as IUCN-backed Conservation CommonsEco-ishare that are trying to encourage open access to biodiversity data and build the biggest repositories in their category, to use O’Reilly’s language. Others, such as the above mentioned Gapminder and Maplecroft are adding value to their sets of development data through visualisation software (Gapminder’s so cool that Google had to get a piece of it). As for mashups, an example of an application with great potential that we’ve come across recently is a combination of Google Earth with meteorological data. Imagine for a moment the weather forecast being delivered to farmers in Ethiopia, specially trained for the purpose, via mobile phones, as in Wepoco’s plans. But see also the combination of Google Maps and ethnicity data done by Healthcarethatworks to prove that disenfranchised communities have more difficulty accessing care. and UNEP-WCMC’s

Letting users interact and play around with the data, ‘trusting them as co-developers’, (O’Reilly) is still a cultural challenge, as Gapminder’s Rosling found out, but the obvious next step. One could easily imagine, for example, that WWF’s recent partnership with Google, which allows virtual access to conservation projects on the ground may be followed by some interactive feature that allows scientists or volunteers on the ground to add or comment on the data. Ditto for the work Amnesty International has done with Google Earth, mapping out human rights abuses around the world (more here).

Getting datasets out of their respective databases is certainly a challenge due to intellectual property issues and data interoperability, but if the various owners of these datasets were willing to do it, the very 2.0 site Swivel would be the ideal place to get some collaboration going. After barely 4 months of activity, the site (still in beta) already offers over 3,000 datasets contributed by over 4,000 members (including OECD) and has all the 2.0 features you can dream off: blog it, digg it, badge it, Google widgetise-it, etc.

Harnessing collective intelligence

The key principle behind the giants of the Web 2.0 era, points out O’Reilly, is that they have embraced the power of the Web to harness collective intelligence. What better example than Wikipedia? NGOs in this respect would seem to have a natural advantage over the private sector, given their traditional reliance on volunteers’ passion and creativity. And Development 2.0 is creeping into perhaps unexpected areas of the development sector. It may come as no surprise to learn that the likes of Greenpeace and Oneworld have their own blog. Perhaps not many people, though, may know that the World Bank Group is running three blogs (as well as online discussions) and has recently developed Buzzmonitor, a tool to gauge stakeholder’s perceptions through social media. And what about UNICEF’s sponsoring of The One Minutes Jr. site, the YouTube equivalent that gives a voice to marginalised young people?

Campaigns, as in the case of Oxfam above, are the obvious place to harness Web 2.0 to create connections and galvanise supporters (readers may be interested in an interesting think piece by the author of ‘Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age‘). Online campaigning is by now a well established advocacy tool in the armament of the smart NGO campaigner. See here for a list of examples and here for an illustration of how EWG is using volunteer support to build an online database of labels for their water safety project.

But this natural affinity doesn’t mean that all opportunities have been explored. Far from it, one can only imagine what would happen if the development sector were able to fully galvanise the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in support of its goals. One has to love the interactivity of Amnesty’s Guantanamo campaign, which allows users to create a virtual alter ego and join an online flotilla to the US base in Cuba. But what if you were to take this one step further? What if, as in the case of WWF Russia’s strategy game to save the leopard, you create a full- scale simulation of a real conservation challenge, let users compete to come up with their best solution and then use it in the real world? Likewise, one likes to think that it is it just a matter of time before an NGO (or development institution) will use a tool like Second Life or equivalent to interact with funds recipients to jointly create a virtual version of an ideal project scenario before funding it.

Joi Ito, a prominent venture capitalist, has written an interesting paper entitled “weblogs and emergent democracy” where he outlines how blogs and other 2.0 technologies will help shape democracy. Yochai Benkler has written a riveting book (available free online) titled “The Wealth of Networks”, in which he explains and documents how peer productions are changing markets and freedom. The arguments used by these two authors revolve around the network effect. How can an issue go from obscure to front page in a matter of five links and lead people to act and change things? A site like dotherightthing.com leverages the wisdom of the crowd to evaluate corporations and hold them accountable. By asking users to vote, tag or flag issues, these sites hope to become forces of change and get organisation to, well … do the right thing. A similar issue aims at doing the same for the US government. GovTracks mashes up various information sources to help regular citizens track their elected officials, key legislative issues, voting records etc.

If these initiatives do not yet have huge visibility, they are a model of the things to come.

Making a difference, in hard, cold cash: the Long Tail of micro-donations

And finally, what about fundraising? Raising awareness, having conversations around development issues and sharing photos could be labelled the first wave of 2.0 applied to development. But what if there was something much more tangible (money for example) coming?

Over 3 years ago, Fred Wilson, a popular blogger and venture capitalist out of New York City decided to sign up for the AdSense program offered by Google and to contribute the revenue generated by his traffic to the Grameen Bank. Small step, yes. But scale that up and it could make for a significant amount of cash for various social causes.

See also GoodSearch, which helps monetise traffic much in the same way most site do, via advertising, except that, here again, a portion of the revenues are contributed back to social causes. Even Microsoft launched their own program, labeled I’M. The idea is that a portion of the advertising revenue generated by users of the Live Messengers IM software would be allocated to social causes.

There is something more than just a gimmick here. As it becomes increasingly easier to put your money where you mouth is, why not think about fundraising through Linked In and other social networks where you put your money on causes that you, your friends and the rest of the crowd filtered and recommended for you?

The very secretive Project Agape seems to want to do something along those lines by ‘applying virality to altruism’. No specific details are available at the time of writing but given that the founder was behind Napster and Facebook, a healthy dose of ‘sociality’ is to be expected.

More to come

We have seen that many of the initial uses of Web 2.0 were focused on raising awareness around issues by leveraging word of mouth. We also discussed a second wave where applications and sites are more focused on getting people to collaborate, and a third wave focused on monetising traffic and attention to support social causes. Given the short time frame in which these three phases have happened, and given the increasing pressure on governments, international organisations and large NGOs to be more transparent, there is little doubt that much is yet to come.

As our world increasingly looks like a village, as new information sources become available and as more people get connected (see “The Internationalisation of Web 2.0“), it is inevitable that new, revolutionary applications will spring up and take the development sector by storm. The challenge therefore for existing 1.0 players like the World Bank and the United Nations is not to decide whether they should ‘comply’ to Web 2.0 but to actually embrace the technology and principles and maintain (or redefine) their relevance. Medium to large size non-profits also need to ask themselves questions about their relevance in this highly competitive, highly fragmented environment. How can they invest in technology, people and applications, not to be cool but to leverage their competitive advantage (be it their donors, knowledge, data or assets)? Smaller non-profits have proven the most innovative so far in their use of 2.0 and the question arises whether they will still be able to compete for attention once the entire sector has moved to this brave new world. The upcoming Web2fordev conference, hosted by FAO, looks like an interesting place to get the discussion going.


Giulio Quaggiotto <gquaggiotto@ifc.org> is the Programme Officer, Knowledge and Innovation at the IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. His interests include social network analysis, integration of KM in business processes and the link between KM and sustainability.

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski <pwielezynski@worldbank.org> is a member of the World Bank’s Central Web Team, where he focuses on audience measurement, marketing strategy and social media. He designed and supervised the development of the buzzmonitor, the first open-source social media aggregator.

Blogging about sustainability

Gold miner holding canary bird 

My great friend Paul, who is always looking for new ways to tackle the challenges of development, has started a new blog, looking at the implications and applications of trying to do sustainable development, especially from a private sector perspective. A very exciting new addition to the blogosphere.

Here’s his first entry, A Mining Adviser’s View of Global Warming. A taste of things to come:

Climate Connections is a series now on National Public Radio done in cooperation with National Geographic: “How are we shaping the climate. How is climate shaping us.”

I enjoyed this story on a mining adviser, environmentalist and government advisor. (Also a friend of mine!)

Another considers “carbon charge” on Chinese imports at the border. Also on China, a story on the impact of coal in China. 5,000,000 miners! According to the BBC, anywhere between 5,000 (official) and 20,000 (independent groups) are killed each year. Another BBC story quotes the People’s Daily saying 17 miners die a day. The size and scale put many issues in a different perspective.

As one injured miner explains in the NPR story:

Those rich Chinese in the Eastern Provinces, they pay lots of money for our coal. But they have no idea about the price we pay. Our bitterness is their happiness.