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G8: Public and Private Coming Together

As world leaders from the Group of Eight meet this weekend to discuss global food security, WFP's Director of Communications and Private Partnerships, Nancy Roman, writes about the exciting inroads against hunger that become possible when governments team up with business.

WASHINGTON DC--Just a few short years ago, companies had to be careful about even letting anyone know they were engaging in the developing world. The legacy left by the past efforts of a few gorilla corporations made it near impossible for companies to even discuss doing anything meaningful to address global social problems like hunger and disease. Companies were relegated to check-writing and building fire-walls between their businesses and what we all called “corporate philanthropy”.

A new day has dawned! Everyone from President Obama to Oprah Winfrey is touting the private sector’s prowess, intelligence and ingenuity as they appeal to the corporate world to conquer what the public sector has failed to overcome, namely hunger, poverty and their associated problems.

Teaming up

The temptation now could be for media and certain independent NGOs to write off the public sector approach in the last half a century as a failure, to see it as government handing over its moldering failure to the private sector, while pinching its nose. 

Rather than buying into such a view, we should see global development as a job that requires an even bigger and more diverse work force. 

The G8 deserves praise for giving food security center stage at this weekend's summit at Camp David. It will deserve even more if it can start to build structures and impetus for this expanded workforce to make deeper inroads into global hunger.

Government needs to join forces with companies and foundations, and find a new approach to solving global social problems. It will no doubt be harder than we expect it to be, bringing its own set of challenges. But it needs to be done.

Businesses, meanwhile, have to figure out how to build solutions into their business models. They know this already, but it is still hard to do.

Governments can help by incentivizing this work and by funding the organisms that will help it move forward. (What USAID is doing with PepsiCo and WFP is a superb example.)

And while companies rightly pride themselves in being more efficient than government, they badly need the lessons that government has learned over the years, along with the relationships it has built. 

Knowledge and relationships

So, one of the things the G8 should do, starting at Camp David, is look for ways to combine the knowledge and relationships they have assembled over the years with the efficiency of the private sector, building new models that will drive change.

The crucial thing is that governments do actually engage, and don’t just step back. Because if government steps back, just as companies are stepping up, we will lose the foundation we’ve laid. Then, the odds are that businesses will have to start learning the same lessons as government, all over again. And one day they may themselves hand back their own moldering bag with their noses pinched. Who will be on the receiving end then?

Our kids (in one sad way or another).