Building Sustainable Societies

When you put great minds like these together – you get great ideas! This panel consisting of Larisa Miller, Business Development Manager, Office of H.H. Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan; Fadi Ghandour, Founder of Aramex, Executive Chairman of Wamda Group; Fred Sicre, Managing Director of Abraaj Group and Faisal Gilani, Head of Middle East & Africa for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, explored the topic “Building Sustainable Societies: Public Policies and Private Actors”.

This topic is of significance as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN and 193 countries has set out to achieve by 2030, would require at least US$ 1.5 trillion over the amount set to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (which we did not achieve in the time frame set out) of US$120 billion annually. This is a conservative number. Some reports suggest that the amount required is US$5-7 trillion indicating a gap of US$1.9-3.1 trillion. Looking at the budgets of the UN, and their member country budgets and commitments delivered till date, it is clear we need to find alternate sources of income (not the public sector) and this means the private sector needs to step in!

We need to relook policy frameworks to attract such investments, provide adequate technical assistance and data to put in place appropriate public policy safeguards.  The Word Economic Forum identifies three challenges for implementing SDGs: (1) bringing together the right stakeholders at the right time in the right place (2) For co-benefit, managing trade-offs and (3) building in accountability for action. The focus of this panel was the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. A place often obscured by biased narratives. There are pressing issues facing MENA – conflict, unemployment, addressing the economic divide, education, health, ensuring safety and stability and managing growth of sustainable cities. Often the issues that you have to address need a deeper dive into root causes, so you don’t focus on symptoms. The panel members presented exciting examples of the work they were doing in this area. Some stories are given below.

Fadi spoke about public private partnerships (PPP). He founded Ruwwad for Development in Jordan. This is a private-sector led community empowerment initiative that helps disadvantaged communities across the region overcome marginalization through activism, civic engagement, education, and financial inclusion with support from the Ruwwad Micro Venture Fund, an equity-based fund that provides seed capital and support for micro businesses and micro-entrepreneurs.  Ruwwad began as a CSR initiative of Aramex and then through public sector support was spun off as a non-profit initiative in 2005. They offer youth scholarships in exchange for community volunteerism. Each scholar is required to contribute 4 hours a week of community service, adding up to 84,600 community service hours per year. Ruwwad is a citizen-led model of a social enterprise.

Ruwwad Al Tanmeya has supported 621 graduates till date from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. One of their high-profile alumni is Ala’a AlSallal, the founder of Jamalon (2010), which is an online-Arabic version of Amazon, today having more than US$4 million in funding with more than 10 million titles. What is fascinating is that 10 years after beginning the scholarship program, alumni of Ruwwad were able to offer a scholarship back to the community. Fadi talks of grass-root led social initiatives as being a generational investment and needing a commitment of over 15 years – something todays CSR budgets may not always consider!

Since we were talking of Ruwwad which began in Jordan, a small country with a large proportion of refugees, this also became a topic of discussion. The recent conflicts in the region have led to a large displacement of people and the brunt of the burden is being shared by Jordan and Lebanon which are dependent on aid to help manage the situation. Did you know that in 2016, it was estimated that Lebanon was hosting close to 1 million Syrian refugees or one in five people in the country? Jordan hosts officially close to 0.7 million Syrian refugees, or about 10% of the population (not considering the refugees from Palestine and other areas). While a lot of focus nowadays is an emergency humanitarian aid, the reality is that refugees can stay in a country for more than two decades before being able to return to their home country. The current models of managing refugees are inadequate.

In 2016, H.H. Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan founded Beacon of Hope.  This initiative aims to make a positive impact on youth living in impoverished or war-torn regions through education and youth philanthropy, by delivering simple solar-light kits, which the children are taught to assemble. In addition, the children are given a basic reading book, uniting light and literacy to generate hope. With hope, all things are possible. Focusing on areas of Africa, where there is abject energy poverty, as well as refugee camps in the Middle East, Beacon of Hope promotes the unity of youth, while giving them the vision of hope that will allow them to see opportunity beyond their circumstances.

Sustainable communities need to be healthy communities. For example, did you know that at least 12 children are born with Thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder every hour in the World? His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan Humanitarian & Scientific Foundation has been working to improve the lives of Thalassemia patients and reduce its impact and spread. One in 12 people in the UAE is a Thalessamia carrier. Pope Francis in 2016, has praised the UAE and the Sultan bin Khalifa Humanitarian and Scientific Foundation for their efforts in the fields of medicine and health. To stop the disease, you need to start with education.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was created in 2000 as an international organization – a global Vaccine Alliance, bringing together public and private sectors with the shared goal of creating equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries.  Faisal spoke about the role of the organisation and explained that Gavi is perhaps the only development organisation which could go out of work as countries Gavi supports should transition out as (a) their economies grow; (b) they fix their health systems; and allocate funds to finance immunisation. Under Gavi support model, countries have to co-finance, based on their per capita income and then gradually grow. Take, for example, Indonesia where Gavi are procuring for 50% of the birth cohort and at the beginning of 2017, Indonesia has transitioned from Gavi support. This is remarkable, as the true role of a social enterprise is to make themselves obsolete in their field of work! All of the countries Gavi supports are being empowered to become self-reliant. I am not sure how many organisations use their own obsolescence as an impact measurement tool to chart their progress. Close to 600 million children have been vaccinated through Gavi, preventing more than 8 million deaths.  All this has been achieved through the power of strategic alliances between the public and private sector.

It is clear that for the private sector, you need a strong culture of shared values committed to SDGs over and above CSR. Fred spoke about some of the work they do in Abraaj Group, a leading emerging market private equity organisation that had over 170+ investments in over 30 countries with c. US$ 10 billion of assets under management. Since 2008, Abraaj has been using a bespoke index to measure their developmental impact in global investments, called the Abraaj Sustainability Index. The index measures six factors: financial performance; health, safety and environment; economic linkages; management & governance; private sector development; and socio-economic impact. Abraaj also has a unique 5+5+5 model, where they contribute 5% of the firm’s gross management fees, 5% of employee bonuses (on a voluntary basis) and a minimum of 5 days of volunteer work a year per employee towards stakeholder engagement. This has led them to focus on three core areas: Building entrepreneurship ecosystems, celebrating art and innovation and empowering future generations across their global network.   Abraaj has invested over US$100 million in more than 100 organizations and committed over 11,000 volunteering hours to causes and initiatives relevant to their markets. Both Fadi and Fred said they had a great opportunity to influence the culture of the firms they invested in but in the end, the firm’s founders were responsible for the culture of their own companies. You need a sustainable community platform approach! For example, Abraaj has supported 9,000+ entrepreneurs, 60+ artists, training of 6,500 youth, as well as over 30 academic and non-profit platforms.

Faisal explained Gavi’s market shaping goal, as Gavi supports over 60% of global birth cohort and subsequently the vaccines market. This enables Gavi to negotiate best prices with pharmaceutical companies and also ensure efficiency. Gavi is also able to substantially bring down the cost of vaccines, increase the number of suppliers – from 5 in 2001 to 16 in 2015 – and reduce the 10-12 years’ gap for introduction of new vaccines between advanced countries and developing countries’ access to vaccines. While private sector’s increasing role and contribution is key for financing SDGs, Gavi has been in the forefront of innovative financing and launched Innovative Financing Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm), the first aid-financing entity in history to attract legally-binding commitments of up to 20 years. Gavi converted US$6.5 billion of long-term – over 25 years – pledges by donor governments of Australia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom into bonds and began trading these in stock markets around the world. Through this innovative and cash front-loading initiative, Gavi through the World Bank, has already raised US$5.7 billion, between 2006-2016, leveraging donor pledges, which helped give Gavi assured and flexible resources for Gavi programs.

It is clear the way forward in building sustainable societies requires creativity and dexterity in managing old processes and structures that should become eventually obsolete. It is not impossible but with courage, determination and champions like the ones listed above – there is always a way forward. Of course, the danger is the glamour of PR and hidden motives. Sustainable societies are about the people and the communities you serve, access and utilize, and if that is the heart of a business and a government’s focus – you have guiding star that can help you navigate the turbulent waters.

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