/ 2 November 2010

The change we need

The Change We Need

We cannot hope for a better tomorrow and ignore the scandalous levels of poverty today. More than 100-million people live in absolute poverty in Southern Africa.

Our efforts to eradicate poverty are too often piecemeal, conventional, sporadic and disjointed. Yet the scale of the problem requires collective, bold, innovative and determined action that goes beyond refining the inner technicalities of specific poverty reduction projects, of which there are a multitude.

We must imagine a different way of doing things and working together and act to construct it. We need systemic change if we will ever succeed in the historic task of our age to overcome poverty.

Systemic change means not just trying to do better projects and doing specific projects better, but also transforming the relationships between different role players and initiatives — within sectors and between different sectors. It means expanding how we think about what we can do to transform our future and how we work together to do that.

It means taking account in what we do of how the whole system operates — and taking action that breaks through its limitations to create new opportunities that yield better results. Businesses, for example, should do more to join up the many small projects that are variously supported through corporate social investment (CSI) programmes — both individually and collectively.

They should also do more to optimise their role in wealth creation and pro-poor development through innovations that grow profitable markets among low-income communities and maximise efficiency gains by integrating poor communities in their value chains.

The social benefits for the future will be as lucrative as the profits that could be maximised now. Doing such inclusive business can be good business. But there is too little of that happening in our region.

That is why the panel of judges have not given the Drivers of Change award in the business category this year. Other than doing more of the same as before, none of the entries showed the level of creativity that can propel business to break the do-good, compliance and “social investment” conceptual barriers that retard a bold new way of doing good business from emerging in our region.

We need drivers of change in business who recognise the excellent opportunities there are for business models that target innovations to undeveloped markets and suppliers.

And we need corporate social responsibility practitioners who join up different initiatives into coherent programmes that can deliver change-producing results at scale and that last. Yet there are good signs that things are changing in other sectors.

The winners of this year’s Drivers of Change awards in other categories are showing that systemic change is possible. There is a clear trend towards more strategic partnerships.

And a move away from pointing fingers towards providing leadership that bridges the divides that prevent us from achieving real and lasting results in poverty reduction. At the request of the judges, this year we introduced a new chairperson’s award to recognise outstanding initiatives that speak to current challenges facing our region.

The inaugural winner of this award is the Yeoville Community School in Johannesburg, for providing access to education to undocumented poor, migrant children in the face of the South African education system’s hostility towards undocumented migrants.

The school goes well beyond the normal education curriculum. It teaches its children and the surrounding community to value intercultural diversity amid widespread xenophobia.

It is a driver of change by being an outstanding example of how possible it is to build a united and caring regional community in Southern Africa — something we need to learn again if regional economic integration is ever to work.

Through approaches that jolt our far too conventional ways of seeing and doing things, initiatives that enable systemic transformation rather than doing more of what has reached its limits, and strategic partnerships that join up the dots, Africa’s development can be an easier task that is more attainable. That is what the Drivers of Change awards are about.

Neville Gabriel is the executive director of the Southern Africa Trust and a member of the panel of judges for the awards