I couldn’t have been further away from Sudan last week - sipping fine green tea in a London private members’ club - but Sudan was one topic of conversation. I stumbled upon an organisation about to set up a development bank in the South of the country and, with a keen understanding of the operational environment, the focus will be on microfinance. Our discussion was just one of many I have had lately about the crucial role business plays in development and as I dip my toe (or ear) into the world of development communications, I meet more and more people who (like me) have Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart’s cherished book “Fixing Failed States” tucked into their coats. Paddy Doherty of the above-mentioned development bank sums it up simply - “profitability ensures sustainability”.
Having lived in developing countries and witnessed the obstacles and frustrations that people have to overcome, I am struck - as are others - by the awesome task facing development. We are asking to speed up history and bring about economic development that has taken the west hundreds of years. And in those hundreds of years it has been the entrepreneurs, the hustlers (as Paddy calls them), the business people that have very often driven development. It’s crucial that we don’t leave them out now.
But it is Pakistan, not Sudan that preoccupies me at the moment. As a Brit, I’m proud of the fact that Britain’s trade investment in Pakistan is the second highest of any country – and that big name companies like Next, Mothercare and Barclays have invested there. However, as a communicator I am disturbed that this positive news is not the best known fact in our bilateral relationship.
Government communicators often look to the commercial world in awe of their ability to get the message across: TV ads, bill-boards, and clever viral campaigns developed during slick brain-storming sessions over freshly squeezed juice and croissants. Often aimed at well-researched target audiences and ultimately justified neatly with increased sales figures. In contrast, we struggle with developing single narratives amongst complex sets of ambitions.
Yet communications around the role that the commercial world can – and does - play in development is - pardon the pun - underdeveloped. Perhaps it is a case of deciding who takes the lead. Recently the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (a political structure) met in Dubai along with 300 delegates many from big names in business (including five UK firms). The Pakistani Foreign Minister himself chaired the meeting (jointly with the UAE). Its aim was to encourage private sector interest in the investment opportunities in Pakistan. But the only place I could find anything written about the event was on the website of the Lahore-based Daily Times (if it is anywhere else, Google doesn’t know about it). Considering the almighty media and communications power that some of the organisations who attended wield, I was disappointed.
It’s a shame if responsibility for shining a spotlight on the successes of private-public partnerships falls between the gaps. My mind is not quite made up about who should lead. In the Dubai example, any of the Friends, the Government of Pakistan, the hosts, or the press relations offices of the businesses involved could be likely candidates to promote this effort. But as the notion of social enterprise grows, I would have thought it made good business sense to let people know where business was making a difference to communities. Perhaps the private sector should be persuaded not simply to invest in developing economies, but to use all their communications nous to tell people about where this has succeeded – how it helps. It might not seem like a business priority, but it will help to ensure ongoing development of the emerging economies they are investing in. Whether you are establishing a microfinance bank in Sudan or opening a retail chain in Lahore, your success will attract others and a better economy will ensue.
I probably don’t sound too undecided – but I am very keen to see if World Bank CommGap readers have a view on this (maybe some of the World Bank Pakistan bloggers?)
Photo Credit: Flickr user kunalthedreamer