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A human engagement model for community investment

Human-to-human investment in host communities

In an age of gigantic international development agencies, and now even philanthrocapitalism, is it still relevant to talk about the merits of direct engagement in host communities and small, gentle actions?  

Absolutely! Even large companies, like IBM, are realizing the value of human engagement. In a corporate version of “Peace Corps”, IBM has just selected 100 employees from 33 countries to participate in the company’s new Corporate Services Corps program. Selected employees will provide leadership and entrepreneurial training in emerging markets.

Benazir Bhutto, in her posthumously published memoirs, Reconciliation, talks about the value of economic and cultural exchange which is predicated on the belief – substantiated by evidence – that the more you know about others, the less likely you are to fear them. As Bhutto understood, anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world is broad and deep, and may take generations to resolve. Yet she believed that support – of the right kind and in the right way – can generate a dramatic sea change in attitudes:

In the past, Western assistance was funneled largely through governments. But contacts with Westerners on humanitarian missions substantially alter Muslim public attitudes. Direct engagement helps beneficiaries fully understand who the benefactors are.”

Bhutto doesn’t propose a program of writing cheques to have-not governments. Instead, she proposes specific and tangible people-to-people projects that will directly improve the quality of life of ordinary people, in the form of humanitarian aid from the West.

And, through this human engagement, we learn much about ourselves. It was former President of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, who recommended human dialogue as a way to see ourselves:

One goal of dialogue among cultures and civilizations is to recognize and to understand not only cultures and civilizations of others, but those of “one’s own.” We could know ourselves by taking a step away from ourselves and embarking on a journey away from self and homeland and eventually attaining a more profound appreciation of our true identity. It is only through immersion into another existential dimension that we could attain mediated and acquired knowledge of ourselves in addition to the immediate and direct knowledge of ourselves that we commonly posses. Through seeing others we attain a hitherto impossible knowledge of ourselves.”

Even IBM sees the layering of value: “It’s a corporate version of the Peace Corps,” said Stanley S. Litow, vice-president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, IBM. “What we as a company get is leaders with a broader range of skills that can function in a global context. What the individual participant gets is a unique set of leadership opportunities and development experiences. And what communities get are IBM’s best problem solving skills. It’s a triple benefit.”

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  • Hi Donna,

    your statements are right, no doubt.

    With globalization we (rich countries) believed the business in different parts of the world would be changeable towards the model we have in the western industrialized countries (although among them, there are already major deviations, like Italy and Finland for example).  This is still a large mistake as several people know already.

    In areas of sales, and also within other types of business collaborations, common respect can only be build on the knowledge exchange about populations, cultures, behaviours, languages, etc. This pre-requisite can be (partly) achieved in different ways: by spending holiday, by reading or listening to media contribution, specialized training, etc. And large companies, with a spread of locations, can celebrate international weeks with appropriate lunch-offerings in canteens and cultural happenings.

    How to build this knowledge, such it’s available for others? Open Wiki?
    Who is prime target of such trainings? The ones, doing next week foreign business here, next month somewhere else?
    What about our next generations (at schools and universities), because they are in 10 years in business?
    What about mentoring?

    The best way to learn about another culture/language is becoming part of that community for a certain time. But we can’t be prepared on forehand for all possible situations. And we know about the “travel – sustainability conflict”.

    So web 2.0 technology, open wiki spaces, and mentoring, could balance among all affected sustainability aspects.

    Kind regards Paul

    • Constructive recommendations Paul. Yes, globalization, that is important to mention. We’re only coming to grips with how to navigate the strain between universalism and indigenization. Maybe you have read Thomas Friedman’s book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree:   “globalization— the Lexus—is the central organizing principle of the post-cold war world, even though many individuals and nations resist by holding onto what has traditionally mattered to them—the olive tree.”  Many still see globalization as an attempt to promote the dominance of Western worldviews – a Disneyfication of all corners of the world. Yet, when you think about the American reaction to banks outsourcing call centres to India, or Chinese investors bidding for Western blue-chip companies, you realize the cultural ripples don’t just flow in one direction. 

      Globalization spawns wide, flat, far-reaching economic hubs and networks. Technologies, and especially the internet, have allowed families to gather around television and computer screens around the globe to share on-the-ground stories about other cultures. Technology helps to build our shared understanding of one another; as you suggest, web 2.0 technology, open wiki spaces, and mentoring can all be tools for constructive and authentic engagement.

      But as you suggest, the endorsement of homogeneous values – universal human rights set by the United Nations for example, or Western values imposed on the developing world – can have an imperialistic feel. Humility may be the key here, what we need to reclaim Western legitimacy and to give ourselves the breathing space required to validate our Western cultures and traditions.

  • Donna:

    thank you for this educational blog. It gets back to the idea of “teaching people how to fish” instead of “giving them fish”.

    I believe that a company that employs these values by dedicating their employees’ time will see ample pay off in so many ways, e.g. in terms of staff loyalty and increase in creativity and moral at the company. This in turn will translate into positive results for customers.