6:30 P.M. on a Friday — it was an odd time of night to witness so many students gathering inside the SSMU Ballroom at McGill University on February 21, 2014. The students, along with several other members of the greater Montreal community, were attending the Global Development Forum, an annual event organized by the McGill Chapter of Borderless World Volunteers.
The goal of the annual event is twofold. First off, it serves as a fundraiser for students vying to work on development projects abroad. Secondly, it aims to fill a void in academia that often neglects abstract dilemmas and realities, by bringing together a variety of speakers and students to discuss current challenges in the development world. For a Friday night, the event got quite a good turn out of students. Of course it may have helped that dinner and cupcakes were included, but attendees were more likely drawn to the forum’s controversial theme: corporations and development.
The conference unfolded in a surprisingly pleasant direction. Rather than inundate listeners with examples of environmental destruction and human rights violations, the five speakers described their positive experiences with corporations and development. By the end of the night, it was clear the conference was as much about informing students of organizations’ current efforts to be socially responsible as it was about sending students home with a few mantras.
Seize opportunities and take a stand — Sidney Ribaux, Equiterre The first speaker to take the stage was Sidney Ribaux, co-founder and executive director of Equiterre. From the get-go his purpose was clear: describe the ideal type corporate leader. According to Ribaux, the socially responsible corporate leader must answer positively to the following six questions:
Do they respect the law?
Are they nice to customers and employees?
Do they respect the communities in which they develop their businesses?
Do they seize opportunities to lessen their social and environmental impact
Do they innovate products to lessen social and environmental impacts?
Do they take a stand publicly?
Ribaux suggested that the first three criteria should be fulfilled by any corporation wishing to stay afloat (although many seem to succeed whilst violating these rules). The latter half, however, are what really distinguish corporate leaders from the rest. And according to Ribaux, few corporations actually do live up to these standards. The distinguishing feature appears to be corporations that go the extra mile beyond merely succeeding financially, and have initiative to take a stand or seize opportunities on matters beyond.
Side note: You can visit Equiterre offices in our neighbourhood. La Maison du developpement durable is one one of Canada’s most environmentally friendly buidlings, and is located on the corner of rue Clark and rue Sainte-Catherine!
Be the better over the best — Peter Johnson, TD Bank Group
You should want to be the best, right?Wrong. According to TD Canada Trust, when you believe you are the best, you become lazy. Alternatively, always strive to be better. This mantra drives Peter Johnson, the bank’s senior manager of environmental risk. Banks are associated with loans and debt over environmental impact. The reason for this is perhaps that the bulk of bank activities oft occur behind the public eye. An exception, of course being the annoying quantities of paper we used to receive in the mail before clients complained and the banks responded by transitioning to online services. However, according to Johnson, banks will always require a certain usage of paper to fulfill legal requirements. A bank that has decreased paper usage to this floor level may accept this as achieving its best. Using TD’s mantra, this would be plain lazy.
TD has thus propelled past the expected. On top of decreasing its paper usage, TD has launched “TD Forests” which aims to raise awareness of healthy forest ecosystems. The project includes making responsible partnerships to ensure paper sources are environmentally sustainable. On top of this, the corporation plants over 45,000 trees a year, provides funding for municipalities to go green, and has set up “urban A.T.M. forests” in the centre of New York City. The project is part of a larger goal of becoming carbon neutral, by transitioning to energy efficient operations and buying carbon credits when necessary.
Life Lessons from Peter: Beware of your own bias. Put yourself in their shoes. Think like they think and offer solutions. You never know where your friends, neighbours, classmates, workmates etc. will end up… take the high road instead of burning bridges. Social media can never replace human interaction #deep
Innovate, innovate, innovate —Holly Korda, Health Systems
Research Associates Innovation has become a hot buzz word. But how do we do it and why is it important in the field of development? For the first question, take a look at the simplified answer provided by Holly Korda’s “Innovation Cycle.”
To understand the process of innovation, Korda exemplified its use in a Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP) that she helped create. The program would have a defined need: chronic diseases becoming increasingly prevalent among the poor who are also less able to manage these diseases. A program was designed to help people manage their diseases affordably: a six-week support group program where people with chronic diseases gather to discuss their feelings. The program was implemented and appeared to be successful, so was disseminated to more groups.
After evaluation at different program locations, it became clear that the program did not translate well to the needs of a group of Somalis. With feedback, they discovered that you do not interrupt someone who is speaking in Somali culture; each person would speak around two minutes at most focus groups, but this cultural factor meant that some people would speak up to twenty minutes. In response to this feedback, a new need was defined and a new structure was designed accordingly.
This example underlines the difficulty with development work: that not everything works uniformly across people or places. Innovation is thus important because it is all about ameliorating a situation, considering contexts, translating innovations to these contexts, learning about successes and failures, and innovating again.
Wise words from Holly Korda: It is important to work with people who share your passion. If you can show the business case for it, then people are convinced. Be interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral — health and health care are about social justice, education, housing, employment, and environment. Know your personal mission — live it — evolve with it.
Partnership and positive marketing — Audra Renyi, World Wide Hearing
What if you define a need but cannot figure out how to penetrate the relevant area or market? According to Audra Renyi, executive director at World Wide Hearing, this dilemma challenges many development practitioners, including herself. World Wide Hearing observed that despite the large problem of hearing loss in developing countries, corporations’ financial requirements had limited their ability to penetrate these markets. As a non-profit organization, World Wide Hearing had the opportunity to fill this void.
However, the organization was faced with two problems: expensive hearing aid equipment and no local technicians to install them. Creating a solution required innovation and creativity. Renyi emphasized the role of creative partnerships in this process. She believes that “most people want to do good.” So her team started thinking outside of the box — rather than focus on how to get money, they thought about strategic partnerships. For the first problem, World Wide Hearing found a partner willing to create innovative technology that would reduce production costs of hearing aids. For the second, they partnered with local women who they trained as Community Hearing Aid Technicians.
Renyi also stressed the importance of considering different types of marketing. While non-profits have certain advantages over corporations, Renyi emphasized that they often neglect consumer behaviour. For example, most development work tries to penetrate markets with negative marketing, such as “if you don’t use condoms, you’ll get HIV.” However, when looking at one of the most widely known products, Coca Cola, it focuses on positive marketing that taps into consumers’ aspirations to lead a better life. Therefore, the way the problem and solution are framed is of utmost importance to a project’s success.
A pool of money — Martin Krayer Von Krauss, McGill Office of Sustainability
Martin is the leader of McGill’s Office of Sustainability, and joined the Global Development Forum to locate McGill on the map of social responsibility. The nexus of McGill’s sustainability efforts is Vision 2020. It is composed of several phases including “where are we now,” “where do we want to go,” and “how do we get there.” McGill is doing a fair job compared to its peers, but Martin says we are only silver medalists. This was the first main message — McGill still has a long way to go. The second main message was clear: the way forward is through our students. First off, students are the ones driving McGill’s concept of sustainability. The Office of Sustainability received student feedback that disagreed with the primary concept of “being green.” In addition to “being green,” students believe sustainability is also about community, food, working together, and connecting with one another. In fact, most successful sustainability projects, including McGill Energy Systems Project, McGill Food Systems Project, McGill Waste Systems Project, and McGill Spaces Project, were spearheaded by students.
On top of this, students are the way forward through the big pool of money called the Sustainability Projects Fund. The two-part fund is sustained from student fees, which are matched by the Administration. After a successful pilot period of 2010-2013 that funded 92 projects worth $2.9 million in total, students voted to renew the commitment until Winter 2018.
Clearly McGill students support sustainability, but they may not know that they themselves can take the bull by the horns. Successful student-led sustainability projects were made feasible because of the Sustainability Projects Fund — the fund exists to promote sustainability, and anyone can apply. And how might a student do this? Well…