Let’s mix it up!

14th April 2014

In 1996, I stood on a poplar-covered slope in Pakistan above a valley where the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Himalayas fight it out in a grand confusion of jagged peaks and deep ravines. Crops of alfalfa swayed gently in the breeze. “All this was barren land, until we had the irrigation channel,” Farhat Khan told me.

Khan and his village once had a hard time surviving. With bitter winters and dry summers making life in this mountainous region tough, the village had no source of income, growing barely enough to feed its inhabitants.

An irrigation channel changed everything. Alfalfa, potatoes and timber could now be grown on land whose value increased several times as a result. And a credit scheme meant local groups could use savings from their new profits to as collateral against which to borrow additional money to start a business or build infrastructure.

At the time I made this trip, I was working at the Financial Times, whose pink pages were filled with stories about international banking and global finance flows. But here in Pakistan, I was having my first encounter with microfinance, something then new to me.

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the blurring of the lines between business and civil society. And the theme running through so many of the stories I’ve written for the FT and others has been the fact that business models can provide powerful solutions to seeming intractable problems such as climate change or poverty.

That’s not to say philanthropic dollars aren’t needed, whether to help fix problems that don’t lend themselves to commercial investment or to kick-start initiatives that, in the long run, may be profit making.

I saw this blend of business and philanthropy at work in Pakistan. The village had acquired an irrigation channel with help from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), one of a network of institutions set up by the Aga Khan who, as leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, supplements spiritual guidance with economic assistance.

After the village requested an irrigation channel, the AKRSP supplied money and technical support – but the villagers themselves were the ones to complete the channel.

Today, this kind of approach is spreading. Institutions such as USAID or the UK’s Department for International Development are using aid dollars to encourage business investment in everything from food security to renewable energy.

Meanwhile, companies are using their commercial clout to source environmentally sustainable raw materials or to bring smallholder farmers into their supply chains. The relationship between corporations and activists has also transformed as they have started to look at each other as partners with overlapping goals, rather than as enemies.

It’s in the spirit of this blurring of the lines that I’ve created this blog. Its title, Mixing It Up, reflects my belief that tackling big challenges such as poverty and climate change means breaking down silos and getting business, non-profits, government, academia and others to work together more productively.

But we’re not there yet – far from it. Governments frequently fail to meet their goals because one department will not talk to another. Companies miss carbon emissions reductions simply because the electricity bill is paid by head office, not by the business units that, with no idea what they’re spending on energy, lack incentives to save.

Organisational roadblocks, cultural barriers and deeply held prejudices are at work all around us. But as resources become increasingly scarce and poverty and social exclusion continue to hamper human development, the pressure to work across the divide has never been greater.

So how can we accelerate this process? Part of the answer lies in finding brokers, middlemen and facilitators who can – like a matchmaking website – bring together organisations and individuals who might never otherwise meet.

Here’s three examples, which I’ll cover in later posts: Based in the UK, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme runs “resource matching” workshops to help companies figure out whether their by-products can be transformed into resources that could be used by other companies.

In the US, a start-up called nonprofit-share is using technology to make it easy for professionals in the sector to connect, learn from each another and form relationships that help them serve local communities more effectively.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps programme lets MBA students loose inside companies to find ways of cutting energy and water use. EDF works with Net Impact – a network of MBA students and professionals – to identify prospective interns and match them with an appropriate company. The interns then work across that organisation, meeting everyone from the chief executive to the cleaning staff – and they get these people talking to each other.

These are the kinds of stories I love. So while this blog will cover a wide range of topics – from impact investing to clean technology – a theme I’ll return to often will be the cross-fertilisation of activities and ideas. Sure, I’ll report on the barriers that still exist. But I’ll also highlight the successes and the individuals and organisations that are making the unexpected connections that deliver results.

And along the way, perhaps I can play a modest role as a matchmaker myself. Let’s mix it up!