Business Partnerships as a Force for Good: A Tool for Rapid Collaboration?

Caroline from MM flowers working with Fairtrade in the building resilience in flower supply chains and ETI East Africa Project

Really useful panel and discussions. Thanks all.
Collaboration and partnership is key. Our partnership for building resilience project was built on an existing multi- sector relationship and used these existing key players and relationships to bring on board additional partners. We had an agreed sense of direction in that we wished to offer immediate support on the ground but also to address much deeper-seated issues along the whole supply chain.

In order to implement change on the ground we needed the engagement of growers and suppliers as well as NGOs and local service delivery partners. Good communications are vital, and all partners and recipients of the interventions need to feel acknowledged and included in the decision-making process be that through MEL or reflections on programme delivery.

Whilst specialists in delivery or industry specific experts need to be listened to there needs to be an openness to challenge and the flexibility and trust to be adaptable and change direction should the need arise.

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The Business Partnerships for Global Goals offers an opportunity for retail brands like VF and Monsoon to collaborate with civil society organizations like GoodWeave International and Awaj Foundation, and brings together expertise on deep supply chain due diligence, knowledge of the informal sector, business insights and realities around worker community needs.

The most effective business partnerships, particularly in times of crisis, require flexible coordination, communication, and transparency. In GoodWeave’s project case, the team connected often with retail brand partners, keeping them updated on project progress and challenges as they arose. Quick responsiveness and candid conversations helped to strengthen the collaboration. For example, GoodWeave and VF worked together to identify four Tier 1 suppliers that were all on-boarded and continued participation in the project throughout the pandemic. In order to facilitate access for unannounced visits, VF provided a letter of support for the inspection team to present upon arrival at worksites that also noted vigorous COVID-19 safety rules would be strictly adhered to during the inspection. VF also reached out to additional suppliers to promote distribution of COVID-19 safety awareness materials, such as posters for worksites. The need to support worker communities with information and resources to stay safe remained at the forefront.

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Hi everyone! In my view, effective partnerships in emergency settings need to be built on comparative advantages of the various actors, it needs to work together with quick turnaround, it needs strong leadership that gives direction and it needs willingness to change and be flexible

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On the Building Resilience in Flower Supply Chains Project, we were able to respond rapidly to the crisis due to the strength of our pre-existing partnerships across the private and public sector. We were able to pool existing business relationships, such as those held by Fairtrade (Co-op and M&S) and MM Flowers (with Tesco, Co-op and M&S). We were also already part of the Coventry University ‘Sustainability in the Cut Flower Industry’ project and decided to partner with Coventry University for the UK market research component of the project. These existing relationships ensured we could rapidly design a project with a great reach, as the three retailers represent different but significant segments of the UK market (from one of the Big 4 through to a convenience format), and with wider reach in the Kenyan flower sector, incorporating both Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade farms (through MM Flowers). Any change as a result of the project was, therefore, going to have immediate impact at scale. This is a real benefit of the scope and size of the partnership pulled together.

These long-term, far reaching partnerships allowed us to design and effectively deliver an emergency response in the floriculture sector in Kenya, which has resulted in provision of health packages to over 6,000 flower farm workers, gardens to supply approximately 3,000 workers with fruit and vegetables, and a communication campaign on COVID-19 awareness reaching over 50,000 workers.

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A1: From experiences at Fairtrade, to be able to respond rapidly to societal shocks, there are three critical elements to a business-led response:

Firstly, businesses are most effective when they are building on already established relationships with those that are most at risk within their supply chains . These sort of relationships mean that when crisis hits, businesses already have a close understanding of where the most vulnerable communities are, their current lived experiences, as well as provide the built-in feedback mechanisms that allow business leaders to understand the impact of the crisis and respond accordingly. This means building partnerships with organisations that enable them to have that close and trusted relationship, be it producer-owned organisations such as cooperatives themselves, local government agencies or NGOs that work closely in communities and ensure voices are heard. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic, Fairtrade through our producer networks provided a critical spotlight on the key risks in each of the supply chains we work in through a regular policy brief, that informed donors and our commercial partners as to where the greatest risks were within the Fairtrade system. Through long-standing relationships with producers, Fairtrade quickly informed businesses as to where resources were most needed, providing a critical partnership for effective response.

Second to that, businesses need to be able to pivot and generate resources efficiently, either through their own internal mechanisms, such as setting aside resources for crisis management or by working together with NGOs and donors to communicate effectively the level of risk within their supply chain to generate external support for the crisis they are facing. Fairtrade’s longstanding partnership with Mondelez International was able to do exactly that through our work together with farmer organisations on the ground, ultimately enabling us to partner with the FCDO on the Vulnerable Supply Chain Facility to create the Cadbury Farmer Resilience Fund.

Finally, the deployment of these resources must be flexible, and have in-built mechanisms to ensure that throughout implementation, support is targeted at where communities need it most. Through the Cadbury Farmer Resilience Fund Fairtrade designed a flexible grant facility designed to enable producers to ensure food security for their communities, diversify their incomes into new areas and protect their productive base in the pandemic. During implementation, we found that levels of food insecurity were far higher than anticipated with the price of food rising steeply in the cocoa communities during lockdown. Hence, the majority of the grant funding was deployed towards food security initiatives, with others setting up new businesses to bring in alternative income sources. We did not fund any initiatives to protect cocoa farms – an element we had anticipated in the early design stage of the project, but were able to pivot away from listening to where farmers had the greatest need and conducting a market analysis to inform our approach. You can read more about our approaches in our Learning briefs here:

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GoodWeave and Awaj’s close connection and trust from local worker communities also brings a unique value add to business partnerships. The project team conducted rapid quantitative and qualitative surveys to over 300 mostly informal garment workers, 80% of whom were women, to assess the impact of COVID-19 on Bangladesh’s RMG sector. This research brought to light the dire situation that many workers are facing during the pandemic and demonstrated how many are struggling to meet basic needs. For example, almost all respondents (92%) are either unable to provide enough food for their families, or have struggled to pay rent for housing since the start of the pandemic, with more than half (55%) experiencing both hardships. While survey respondents were randomized and not necessarily workers from VF supply chains, this connection offers VF a better understanding of the realities where their products are made by learning more about worker’s needs directly through rapid research, through other community-based activities like the Workers’ Rights Awareness Sessions, or through Emergency food distribution events which included workers from VF supplier worksites.

Effective business partnerships also require taking an open approach to learning. GoodWeave is working closely with suppliers to improve their processes, for example strengthening policies, where necessary. Rather than pointing out non-compliant worksites, GoodWeave provides resources and support to help suppliers strengthen their operations. In particular, small facilities may be not aware of local requirements or new requirements as a result of COVID-19 and need more support and education to be brought to the same level of formal ones. Workers employed in smaller facilities need to also be aware of their rights, especially as it related to the pandemic. This project has given retail partners more context to understand these realities and gain greater insights into supply chains so they may apply lessons learned from this project into future supplier engagements.

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A1 Partner Africa:

Effective partnerships are when the support provided meets the business / worker need and NGO expertise can be deployed quickly to meet this need. Where brands and retailers know their supply chains well, identify suppliers quickly and understand their challenges is where we have seen great momentum in regard effective business partnerships. Whilst the interventions need to meet the need, they can not be overly burdensome to suppliers who are facing huge challenges, suppliers should not be expected roll out extensive programmes with little support – this in most cases is too much when trying to manage their business.

Interventions should strike a balance between targeting workers (kitchen gardens, food / health packages, training) whilst also supporting business continuity. Ultimately, if businesses fail and close down, workers will suffer very much. In the FCDO funded VSCF project Securing workers’ rights in a COVID-19 context – East and Southern Africa – this is the approach that we took, providing rapid mitigation support to workers to improve awareness of Covid-19 and support their food and nutrition security, whilst training management on business continuity and Covid-19 outbreak control. The results of this dual approach was increased safety on site, with workers reporting that they felt much safer than before the project started.

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This is a great question. From the perspective of FCDO I think it’s useful to make the following points:

  • Multinational Cooperations have a global presence and employ thousands of poorer people.

  • FCDO programmes such as the Business Innovation Facility and the Work and Opportunities for Women programme leveraged private sector partnerships to achieve a common goal. BIF housed a business partnerships fund which provided funding for corporates to pilot or replicate inclusive business ideas. Its grants helped develop useful ideas and encouraged MNCs to pilot and learn from them. The WOW programme similarly partnered with companies to further the women’s economic empowerment agenda and leveraged in-kind contributions.

  • Partnering in rapid response however, also requires adaptation and flexibility in using the tools available to respond to an emerging issue. During an emergency, context changes very quickly. Under the Business Partnerships for Global Goals programme which houses the Vulnerable Supply Chains Facility, we have acted rapidly, flexibly and responsively to find solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Not only was this important at the time of designing projects where the Facility Manager helped co-create with the partners, but also throughout implementation. To this end, the programme has been checking in with beneficiaries continually to adjust strategies ensuring the support provided continues to be relevant for the target groups.

  • The Vulnerable Supply Chains Facility, is made up of £4.3 million UK aid and £2.1 million from businesses, and seeks to enable vulnerable people and supply chains in the agriculture and garments sectors to recover from and remain resilient to the economic and social impacts of COVID-19. It leverages the reach and influence of responsible businesses through 8 partnership projects.

  • In just under ten weeks the Facility established partnerships with 16 of the UK’s largest retailers and wholesalers (including Primark, Monsoon, New Look, M&S, Morrisons, Co-op, Waitrose, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s) with a combined annual turnover of £140bn and employing c.4m workers. If MNC influence and leverage can be harnessed by FCDO, they have the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of the world’s poor.

  • VSCF has already provided 385,000 people (54% women) with direct access to services including health support, information on COVID-19 risks, PPE, food support, income diversification services, operational health & safety, improved working conditions and climate smart approaches. 130 garments factories and farms/unions are directly supported through 20 responsible retail brands. Up to one million people in wider communities are expected to benefit indirectly through strengthened and more resilient supply chains in 7 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (Myanmar, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Ghana)

Naomi absolutely agree with all your points, very similar to our experience and learning as well.

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Q1 – I would start by saying effective business partnerships are those that are agile and quick enough to respond. They are increasingly disruptive and no longer follow old approaches of humanitarian response. Increasingly business and private sector are working hand-in-hand using their skills, resources, footprint and contacts to respond quickly and effectively. At Crown Agents, we were able to work with Brands on a Mission, and Business Fights Poverty to respond to the recent India COVID-19 crisis by reaching out to partners like Primark and MARS, who helped provide medicine and oxygen to India within days. We did this because collectively, we could bring together our footprint, decades-long procurement expertise, resource mobilisation and contacts to respond fast (forget the old-fashioned way - where business stood back and INGOs had all the answers). This is different and has proven to have real and fast impact on the ground.

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Thanks for sharing your insights! Similarly to your experience, the National Business Compact on Coronavirus in Kenya (NBCC) was built on existing relationships of trust. Different stakeholders and partners from different sectors had differing capabilities. Sometimes, those capabilities and the differing underlying priorities clashed, which made the effort a constant juggling trying to assimilate stakeholder needs and finding common points of collaboration. However, at the end of the day this effort turned out to always be worth it because the reach and impact on providing access to sanitary facilities could not have been driven by one sector alone. You rightly point out, that good communication are vital and I could not agree more.

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Wow, so many great responses already!

In response to Q1:
In our experience with this project, the relationship between the brand (Primark) and the factories engaged was key. Approaching the initial conversation as partners, with the brand positioning themselves as an equal was key. Women Win and our Burmese partner, Girl Determined, also discussed women’s rights from the approach that we are looking for solutions which support both workers and the factory - so really looking for that sweet spot for a win-win. As Lindsey and others on the panel mentioned, inviting workers and the factories themselves into the conversation means that we tackle the crisis as true partners. It was also mentioned that the importance of trust is key in these partnerships. We relied so much on the information the Girl Determined was able to feed up and their recommendations for what’s possible (during covid and then military coup in Myanmar). These hyper-local approaches must remain at the forefront of the conversation.

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Indeed maybe the threat of Corona showed us that those tensions could be put to one side and the need to collaborate outweighed them! If we can do it for that we should be able to do it for Climate Change and Gender equality!

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**Ans Q1: CARE International response: Many of my thoughts are resonating what the earlier panel covered and mentioned, especially Fiona’s response from M&S.

  1. CARE International, with GSK and M&S, has a longstanding five-year partnership focused on resilience building and health protection across the supply chain in Bangladesh. Across these supply chains, in which 80%+ are women, having a healthy and protected workforce increases productivity. This platform, helped create and grow significant trust across partners, trust between the localized engagements with stakeholders linking private and public entities, and trust between the communities, factories and CARE, that has enabled the quick and responsive means to pivot from development platform to emergency response to COVID-19 with FCDO support. This quick activation was made possible because the partnership was already working, and the platform was in place - and because FCDO support enabled a quick activation and scale up. Without the longstanding, trusting relationship it would have been very difficult to assemble and scale a partnership during an emergency.
  2. Having the infrastructure, mechanisms, relationships, tools/processes and having already demonstrated impact across the Disaster Management Cycle. CARE’s programme has focused over the last five years on creating resilience in the face of specific health and health infrastructure challenges, especially for women garment workers so adding the COVID response into this existing structure or DNA was quick and easy to tailor across the various streams to ensure a turn-key transition into an emergency response.
  3. Having the means of quick funding access is also critical. In this case FCDO funding, as Lydia (M&S) mentioned, created the additionality and provides the “fuel” to advance and go to scale the work very quickly. But also it is worth thinking in advance means and mechanisms for disaster funding support. Early warning/early action has a greater impact and is more effective and efficient but primarily helps to save lives and livelihoods. NGOs do not have the luxury of emergency funding at hand and often by the time these funding streams come online, the opportunity for quick wins and value for money responses are lost.
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Our experience in the sea freight project agrees with all your points. Flexibility was key to be able to mould the project as new partners wanted to be involved and others dropped out. Flexibility to address new issues and switch training from face to face to online was also vital with very little notice.

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The fluid structures and the comparatively flat hierarchy between the partners emerged as a result of the initially very loose nature of the effort. COVID had just hit Kenya and the WHO had just declared the public health crisis a pandemic. Things were moving fast and so the compact had to develop in record time. From initially just a handful of people surrounding me, we quickly scaled up by adding more and more partners that were all connected with our mission. The unprecedented nature of COVID however made it relatively smooth for our partners to align with the government’s health priorities of promoting social distancing, hygiene and masks.

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I wholeheartedly agree with your mention of ensuring that partners and recipients must be acknowledged and included in the decision-making process, Caroline! The idea of mutual benefit and contribution remains vital across all programs.

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Great! Be interesting to compare experiences.

Beyond that, I also believe that local ownership is key, particularly within national contexts that have in the past been exposed to very top-down approaches of governance. Only when a sense of ownership and community support exists, which these partnerships should specifically target, can impact be maximized.

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@myriam.sidibe - this is so true and having worked with Brands on a Mission, I know that flexibility and ability to move fast has helped so much to save lives. In a way shock scenarios have required us to throw out the rule book.

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