Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Putting people at the centre of the SDGs

November 2015

Stakeholders from across the spectrum are looking to find better ways to work together to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Dr Phillip Goodwin, ceo of VSO, the world’s leading people-centred development organisation and Stanley S. Litow, president of IBM’s Foundation, who deliver the world largest pro bono consultancy programme, share their thoughts on revitalizing the global partnership through corporate skills sharing

Why is ‘people centred development’ critical to realising the SDGs?
PG: There has been a realisation that unless ordinary people are given the ability to define and address their problems, then poverty will not be eradicated. The current draft declaration for the sustainable development goals alludes to this. Way down in paragraph 43 it says this is “an agenda by and for the people”. But it would be better if these seven short words were at the top of the draft! Putting people at the heart of development is central to what we at VSO try to do. We’ve been working with volunteers for over 55 years to create lasting change. The Valuing Volunteering research – released with the Institute of Development Studies this year - shows this approach delivers results because it strengthens local ownership, creates new forms of collaboration and promotes innovation - all the things needed to deliver the SDGs. Ultimately, this is not about the old style of development aid but about supporting transformational, deep-seated change. 

SDG 17 talks about strengthening the means of implementation in sustainable development. What can the private sector bring to the table to further this objective?
SL: The private sector brings deep expertise in client service, collaboration, measurement & evaluation. Through our consultative approach, we problem solve through listening and identifying core issues, while examining the holistic landscape. We deliver comprehensive solutions that draw upon extensive expertise and cutting edge technology. We know that often the best solutions are collaborative and we bring deep rigor in continuous improvement through measurement and evaluation.
Overall, the most important aspect is to have a willingness to learn from each other. Even within the private sector. For example, we have invited many companies to join us on Corporate Service Corps (CSC) engagements. Companies such as JPMorgan Chase, John Deere, Federal Express and more; we feel a responsibility to share our best practices to encourage more participation in pro bono problem solving.

How can corporate volunteering and pro bono work support people-centred development and the realisation of the SDGs?
PG: Poverty is a complex problem. Solving complex problems requires us to make connections. We need to first make connections between ordinary people, experts and leaders so that we can better understand the problem. But we also need to make connections across society – between government, civil society and the private sector – if we are to actively solve those problems. The private sector has enormous resources at its disposal – not just finance – but knowledge, skills and networks. VSO is working with the private sector to harness those resources and to promote innovation and new forms of collaboration to tackle poverty. At the same time, corporates are learning a lot by working with communities and institutions in developing countries. They are being pushed out of their comfort zone and gaining new insights, skills and motivation that they can bring back into their workplace.

SL: IBM has been committed to meaningful community engagement since the company was founded over 100 years ago. In many ways, our Citizenship work has naturally been aligned to the SDGs. IBM joined as a founding member of Impact 2030. We are also aligning skills, resources, and programs to provide maximum impact for many of the SDGs.
A corporate/pro bono volunteering model can take many forms. Increasingly our volunteers are recruited nationally, regionally, as well as internationally. But it’s important to us that all of our volunteers work within a strategic programme. That way they and their companies can feel confident that their contribution doesn’t just stop when the individuals go home but that VSO and its local partners ensure there is continuing support from a network of volunteers to deliver long-term, transformational change. This is what we are trying to achieve with IBM beginning in India. By using the SDGs as our rallying point, we will work to bring together the private and third sector to find ways of harnessing volunteering and corporate pro bono to strengthen the NGO and civil society movement which is so vital . We envisage volunteering of all types, from grass roots to international executives working toward the same objectives,.

The private and so-called third sector so often find themselves in opposition over issues of inclusivity, sustainability and the needs of the bottom billion, why is this and what can corporate volunteering and pro bono do to change that reality?
PG: I know that there can be a natural tension by the drive for profits that the private sector is focused on. At VSO we have tried to find ways to address that through our Corporate Partnerships work. For example, VSO is in a partnership with Syngenta on a 3 year programme to make farming more profitable for 7000 small-scale rice, potato and vegetable farmers in the Rangpur district of north western Bangladesh. Two teams of Syngenta volunteers will visit Bangladesh every year, for three years. The first two groups are back now and we’ve seen how their range of expertise in agronomy and business is already making an impact. In return, they get first-hand experience of working with small-holder farmers. One of the volunteers is a Supply Chain Manager called Jonathan and he has told me that experiencing somewhere like this first-hand is so different to just reading about it. This kind of top level investment in a program means there is certainly no standing back and throwing money at the problem, so this is a shift. They have to put forward relatively senior people who channel their energy and knowledge into getting this programme to work really well.

SL: IBM has been at the forefront of demonstrating how public, private and social sector partnerships are critical to deeper and broader impact contributing to sustainability. One example is the collaboration we have enjoyed with USAID and our Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program. We have sent over 100 employees on CSC engagements for organizations identified by USAID in Kenya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Senegal and Ethiopia.

How do you see corporate volunteering and pro bono evolving over the life span of the SDGs?
PG: Volunteering has changed so much in the lifespan of the MDGs that there is no doubt this relatively new growth in corporate volunteering will evolve equally during the course of the 15 years of the SDGs. People from all levels of society have been much more engaged in the design of this new framework too so there is more buy-in and shared responsibility for their delivery.
While we used to see volunteering as a very much international, a north to south transaction, limited to the areas around health and education pretty much, corporate volunteering will surely start to attract more people with a vast range of skills who value the experience and want to give something back too. The willingness of their employers to engage with the model, to invest, because they see the benefits are multi-fold, will be a key driver in this.
VSO, supported by companies like IBM, has launched a new corporate volunteering initiative, VSO Knowledge Exchange to develop greater understanding of the impact of corporate skills in development by taking it to scale

SL: More companies will embrace public, private and social sector partnerships. We will continue to share our learning with our clients and engage in joint projects. Our focus will constantly be sharpened to deliver the deepest impact we can to the communities we are serving. And our employees will continue their intense dedication to service. Many join IBM just to have the chance to be a part of the Corporate Service Corps or one of our other service based programs. As millennials comprise a greater portion of the workforce, we will see more companies designing programs to attract this talent for whom Corporate Citizenship is essential – just like IBM where Innovation that Matters-for our Company and for the World, is one of our three core values.

VSO will be hosting the first ‘Start Here’ webinar from 12h00-13h00 on 15 November for companies interested in exchanging ideas on how to get involved with the SDGs. For more information contact

Global | SDGs


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