Nina Gardner is a Professorial Lecturer in International Law at SAIS. She is the director of Strategy International, a consulting firm she established that specializes in Corporate Social Responsibility, sustainability and climate change. Her main clients have included energy giant, ENEL, Aspen Institute Italia and large international organizations, like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

Grace Cramer, a SAIS Perspectives editor, caught up with Nina Gardner to discuss the role that businesses can play in promoting development through technology and corporate social responsibility initiatives. 

GC: What role can business play in leveraging technology to promote development? 

NG: Business has a unique position in the field of technology and development. Because of its resources and its leverage, it can scale up successful technologies in a way no other sector can. This allows the private sector to design and produce ‘leapfrog’ technologies, which allow developing countries to skip inefficient, earlier technologies and move directly to more advanced ones. 

For example, we are seeing exciting developments in mobile telephony. Technologies such as Safaricom’s M-pesa in Kenya allow people to make transactions through their mobile phones. When individuals, especially women, stop carrying cash, they are less likely to be the victims of crimes. These technologies also allow people in developing countries to skip over computers and access the internet directly through their phones. This helps tackle information asymmetries, giving people greater economic power. For example, when small holder farmers are able to find out the market price of goods they plan to sell that day, they are in a better position to bargain with the middleman. 

Users are not the only beneficiaries, business also benefits. Look at Paypal -- a truly exciting story. They are capitalizing on the rapid growth of a middle class in Africa who have an appetite for online retail. Penetration of banking and credit cards is low, making it difficult for consumers to buy online. In just over than two years, Paypal is now operating in 43 countries in Africa. I doubt they see this as a purely philanthropic move.

Then there are technologies that businesses can harness for corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. I helped create a partnership in Latin America between Enel (one of the world’s largest electric utilities) and a wonderful non-profit, Barefoot College. This organization helps bring electricity to off-grid villages in remote locations by training illiterate grandmothers to become solar engineers. Not only does this initiative provide the benefits of light powered by renewable energy to their communities, but it changes the women’s social standing in their villages. Meanwhile, this project greatly enhanced Enel’s reputation in the countries it was expanding to and motivated its employees. 

This reputational gain is critical. Successful companies rely on attracting the best talent so a good reputation is essential. This is especially important for firms looking to court millennials – a very socially conscious generation. We saw this only recently as ridesharing firm Uber lost market share to Lyft after having been perceived as taking advantage of a taxi strike against the contested immigration ban in the United States. To attract the next generation of employees and consumers, businesses will have to demonstrate that they can bring about positive change in the world. 

GC: How do businesses make sure they actually drive development? 

NG: If firms want to be successful, partnerships are critical. NGOs may be resource poor but they are well aware of the local context and the challenges on the ground. For example, they will know if a given technology may not work given infrastructure issues or local education constraints. Governments are also essential partners. By taking away obstacles such as taxes and tariffs, or by providing quality education, they can help a technology product to succeed. 
This is the real beauty of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unlike their predecessors, the SDGs emerged out of a consensus among governments, civil society, and business. Every firm can find some area they are best suited to focus on within the SDGs. For example, pharmaceutical firms can focus on good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), but through their employment practices, can also help make a difference on gender equality (SGD 5), and economic growth (SDG 8). Energy firms meanwhile are partnering on goals around clean energy (SDG 7) and climate action (SDG 13).

GC: What are the risks that technology can post to development? 

NG: As I teach in my class of Corporate Sustainability, Business and Human Rights at SAIS DC, business and technology can also pose a threat to development. 

One concern is the growing risk of a digital divide. As we become reliant on technology, jobs are increasingly requiring a minimal level of digital skills that many workers in developing countries lack.  Far from enhancing development, a digital divide could exacerbate inequalities within nations, among nations, and between genders. However, business could help to address this by partnering with governments in developing countries to educate the workforce, thereby safeguarding their future talent pipeline. 

We also see risks where a business’ technology is not used as it was intended. This was evident when Yahoo and Google first entered the Chinese market. Their products actually hindered political development as Chinese government agencies used the technology to track down and imprison dissidents. 

Similarly, if technology creates change too fast for labor markets to adapt, technology risks creating structural unemployment. This is a concern inherent in self-driving cars. It will put millions of drivers out of work not just in developed countries but in developing countries too. The only solution to these global challenges is global cooperation. All sectors –  government, civil society and business – must work together to ensure technology boosts, not hinders, economic development.

PHOTO CREDIT: Sasint from Pixabay licensed under CC0 1.0.