Blurred lines: Are corporations beating the social sector at the sustainability game?

It's no news to most that the old 'charity' vs 'business' lines have blurred significantly. Corporate Social Responsibility is moving from simply 'greenwashing' to being an integrated part of value chains, as customers and the planet demand change.

However, what does still come as a surprise to me, is when I see businesses outperforming the social sector on matters of sustainability.

An example of this that I saw recently was with waste. When attending a meeting at a large development organization's offices, I noticed that their cafeteria offered no recycling options, and the plates, cups and cutlery were all made of plastic. Their trash cans could hardly contain all the landfill waste accumulating as people ate their lunch. Contrasting this, a visit I made to a well-known corporation's campus revealed that they had decreased waste associated with dining by over 10% by getting rid of all take out boxes and offering all left over food to homeless shelters. Not a plastic fork in sight.

Perhaps strangely, instances like this fill me with hope. In my opinion the traditional 'third sector' exists to fill gaps that standard corporations and government ignore. But given that the financing structure tends to breed dependency, and relies on exit strategies - the fact that corporations are starting to fill certain gaps themselves can only be good news.

Add to this the fact that we are now in the age of new types of business, new ways to finance innovations, and any number of ways individuals can engage with issues of sustainability - the lines are likely to keep getting more blurry. I say thank goodness for that.

Empowering people? Not in this case...

 A conversation I had recently left me stunned to find out how little has changed when it comes to empowering people within the countries we are serving.

A lady working for a development agency explained to me how, in order to get $100 reimbursed, she had to wait for numerous people in various countries to sign off on the expense, which took months.

We're not talking about an intern here - this lady was at the top of her game. She worked directly with the country government, and headed up her area of work. And yet - clearly her influence didn't go as far as being able to make a decision worth $100.

What type of work can get done in these set ups? This lady was spending her entire time in the office, dealing with ridiculous bureaucracy, while problems of poverty, disease and conflict ravaged the country around her.

I truly believe that most of the solutions to the challenges in countries, lie with the people that spend their lives there. Not in some far off HQ; even if it is filled with PHDs and a ton of cash. The latter's job is to serve the countries' people with the ability to work - not tie their arms behind their back whilst paying them a salary.