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If ever we needed proof that conventional development approaches are failing to address poverty, disease and malnutrition, the 10 year checkpoint for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals provided it.

The shortfalls in achievement in parts of Africa and South Asia cruelly expose the limits of our current efforts. Debate has recently turned to how business, governments and NGOs can work together in ways that align commercial self-interest with societal value. But the emergence of a ‘convergence economy‘ will disrupt incumbent development providers and ask many questions of businesses.

The Good News… and The Bad News

The good news is that the struggle against seemingly intractable problems such as malaria, drought and extreme poverty coincides with a time when global companies are looking for new markets. It’s no surprise, therefore, that NGOs and the private sector are increasingly working together. But all too often this collaboration is for one-off projects and conducted at arm’s length.

Business provides funds and NGOs deliver solutions. This may give business a license to operate in new territories, but it misses a large opportunity to transform communities for the long-term.

What is the Convergence Economy?

It is based on a merging of issues: Water, sanitation, education and disease, for instance, can only be addressed effectively together. It recognizes that the interests of NGOS do not run counter to those of business. And this results in a convergence of solutions, where it no longer matters whose logo is on the product or service that is improving the welfare of communities. 

We are all aware of how leading brands are supporting local communities and farmers, but beyond ethical supply chains and community based business practices, some businesses will have to consider more radical transformations of their operations.

Accenture's New Era of Sustainability 2010 Report

We can expect to see hybrid organizations that genuinely bring together NGOs and businesses in newly formed entities that have joint and flexible value chains at their heart. Danone’s collaboration with Grameen in Bangladesh illustrates this and has resulted in entirely new products to combat infant malnutrition. In some cases, we can expect the private sector to receive grants rather than NGOs.

The ‘convergence economy’ therefore requires businesses to create new business and operating models in local markets and to identify where they may have the best capabilities to ‘touch’ local communities in place of or in partnership with traditional aid providers. These new businesses or subsidiaries may be in joint partnerships with NGOs and other players.

For solutions to be sustainable, they will need to feed back local innovations into the broader business to maximize commercial benefit. To maintain their commitment, they will have to persuade shareholders that these commitments with longer term pay back periods are essential for future growth.

What does the convergence economy mean for NGOs?

According to our survey with the United Nations Global Compact of 766 CEOs, 27 percent of CEOs saw NGOs as key stakeholders in areas of sustainability in 2007. That figure fell to just 15% in 2010.

NGOs will still occupy a vital position in development—indeed they must, as they possess the local knowledge and knowhow, but they will see their role changing.

NGOs will act as coordinators, not just providers.

They will attract investment finance as well as seeking grants. They will support free markets as a tool for development. This means adopting new capabilities and, to some extent, a new cultural outlook. In the same way private sector companies are used to disaggregating their businesses and outsourcing non-core operations, NGOs will have to redesign their structure and purpose.

They will need a venture capital mentality to create conditions for investment.

The convergence of development and commercial enterprise is not therefore merely about ethical supply chains or profit seekers embracing a broader definition of value.  It is about a far deeper and more fluid operational collaboration across sectors. As multinationals enter new markets, they will have to redesign their models and assist NGOS to do the same.

Then, what could be seen as a marriage of convenience today can become a more committed and productive long-term relationship in the future.

–By Gib Bulloch, Executive Director, Accenture Development Partnerships

Gib is the Founder and Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP), a ring-fenced not-for-profit consulting group within Accenture, whose clients include many of the major international NGOs and development agencies. ADP’s main focus is bringing affordable business and technology expertise to the international development sector and promoting private sector engagement in sustainable development. In 2007, ADP was awarded the Management Consulting Association (MCA)’s CSR Award and in 2008, Gib was named as the Sunday Times sponsored Management Consultant of the Year in the Best Partner/Director category.

Gib has lived and worked extensively in developing countries and is a regular speaker on the role of business in development, corporate social entrepreneurship and cross-sectoral partnerships.