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Free Trade Zone Thinking for Development

Thursday, 21 February 2013 15:25


As the United States and Europe start the slow waltz towards a free trade zone, there is another marriage which has been promising for a long time… but has turned into a decades long engagement.

A classic dichotomy emerged in the early 20th century, primarily in developed countries as commercialism and capitalism took root alongside non-profit aid work as a viable career and lifestyle. Other than philanthropy, which requires a rarer species (million and billionaire) to complete the picture, the two roads developed more or less separately and diverged to a point of mistrust.

The occasional corporate social responsibility was the first dipping of the capitalist toe into the NGO world, welcomed for the money but not a clearing of the channels so to speak.

A couple of decades ago both sectors started experimenting in each other’s domains in a tentative manner as non-profits put for-profit models into play within carefully ring fenced projects, where microfinance or micro-entrepreneurship was brought into play without contaminating the non-profit mothership organisation.

On the other side of the great divide companies brought socially responsible practices into the product process (green and/or small farmer friendly supply chains, factory minimum standards rather than only donations or charity outsourcing) without making those practices a requirement for profitability or a product mainstay.

Of course there always are and were exceptions to the rule and in the past few years however we can at least declare that the cold war is over as philosophies slowly converge whith less antagonism. International donors engage for-profit companies to undertake traditionally NGO activities, non-profits engage corporate expertise to skill up and fill their gaps in systems and implementation efficiency.

Both sides dip into each others expertise towards a greater goal, in many case both social and financial profit. We are on the verge of a ‘free trade zone’ that will make projects, programmes, products, companies and communities flourish… we just need to settle on some modalities that everyone is comfortable with.

And there’s the rub. Corporate and non-profit cultures are personality driven and both ends of the spectrum continue to attract the same types of personalities and while, as noted, it’s no longer the case that n’er the twain shall meet it takes those few adventurous individuals to make the leap and ignite the new paradigm. And luckily we get to work with more than a few of those brave souls!