Are You Working for Free?

Are NGOs the new interns of the workforce?

Recently I had a discussion on this with a friend who leads a women empowerment NGO, and who’s been frustrated on the lack of financial support commitments from the private sector in honor of their work together. Companies are increasingly interested in hiring them to work together, but paying in pennies. As if an NGO didn’t deserve to be paid for the expertise work they do?

I’m a keen advocate and believer of NGO – private sector partnerships. There’s great potential for the private sector to make their operations more sustainable, to boost responsible and profit-creating business practices through partnerships with different NGOs, who have ground-level connections and expertise for example for sustainable supply chain development or community engagement. Interest and understanding for the opportunities have been growing steadily.

But do the partnerships create value for those doing the work? Are the NGOs benefiting from all the work they do for the private sector, fairly?

During my university years, one of the most common topics among students was unpaid internships. Great work experience, CV development, connections were often offered – but no paycheck. This applies from private sector to government bodies. Students, and worst even fresh graduates, have for longest time been expected to be working for free. And typically also without a hope of an employment within the said workplace, leaving them with nothing but experiences to pay their debts.

The internship problem has not faded away, but it has clearly escalated. Beyond recruiting young graduates to work for free, employers are now turning to NGOs with similar expectations. It seems common to engage an NGO for a partnership with potentially a nominal fee, to do work that otherwise would likely have been undertaken by a consultant charging a much higher amount.

NGOs or small businesses further face a dilemma of being expected to finish a major part of the job before getting a guarantee of any kind of payment. This applies to project funding applications which often require days, weeks, months even planning and preparation and have no guarantee of success. Service contracts, where half the work needs to be completed before agreement is even signed. Designers being asked for the design to prove the expected quality, before contracting or paying. Translators needing to do part of the translation to show their capacity. These are just a few samples I’ve come across, with huge risks and uncertain payments for individuals or small operators and full power for the bigger “partner” to determine the terms and whether agreement will be granted or honored.

Why do young fresh graduates work for free? Why do NGOs accept lowly paid partnership services? Why do individuals and small businesses do half the work without a formal appointment and hence without a security to get covered for the work done?

Big players nominate the field and create the rules. These can be companies just as well as governments. It’s modern exploitation. Big ones have the power over the small ones.

I’ve experienced this conduct even from typically ethical, responsible actors – such as multinational companies ranking high on sustainability indexes or embassies of western countries. Often I’ve in my mind questioned the practices but never been in the position to stand up for it – for the certainty of losing the job, the deal, the partner.

We talk a lot about responsible business, sustainability, environment protection, community engagement etc, even about looking after the own staff. But what about those who are giving a critical contribution, but being left hanging half-way in, half-way out? The interns, NGOs, small businesses – those whose services can be invaluable but not (adequately) paid for?

How can we break the circle of using free workforce?

 

 

 

 

 

Diving with Bull Sharks

“Envious to extremes!” “Eek! You are crazy, I will have nightmares for weeks thanks for this”, “You are one lucky scuba-girl!”, “Have you got all your limbs still intact?”

I got a great variety of comments from friends to my recently published video where I went diving with over 30 bull sharks in Fiji. No cage, mind you. It was a totally insane experience, and one very difficult to describe with words. Even the video doesn’t show the awesomeness of the dive but gives a glimpse into the world I just dived into. A world where I can mix and mingle with bull sharks in their own environment.

The reactions to my video were clearly divided by divers / non-divers; divers being green of envy and ready to book their flights to try it out themselves and non-divers thinking I’m insane at best and never wanting to set their foot into an ocean ever again. Sharks divide people, clearly. For some they are fearful, horrid predators, to others amazing, beautiful and gracious creatures that we get to observe underwater, when lucky enough.

I had read about this shark dive opportunity online so I had a faint idea of what to expect, but still the dive with so many bull sharks around me was even better than I could ever have imagined. You have to experience it to get that feeling, be in midst of 30 huge bull sharks to appreciate their awesomeness. We did 2 dives there, and saw probably a hundred different reef, black tip and white tip sharks as well, but the bull sharks were the stars of the day. Honestly, I felt no fear at any time, just enormous gratitude for the experience and breath-taking amazement.

The bull shark dive was organized by Beqa Adventure Divers (the acronym BAD might be cool but not descriptive) in Pacific Harbour, Fiji. When it comes to diving with the sharks, they know what they are doing.

The shark diving is organized in Shark Reef Marine Reserve, established in 2004, as a protected sanctuary for the sharks and to preserve the ecosystem where they live. They collaborate with the villages in the area,traditional “owners” of the reef, who have relinquished their respective fishing rights to the Shark Reef and get compensation from divers instead.

My major concern once first learning about this opportunity, was the fact that the sharks are being fed and hence guaranteed to be seen in such huge numbers. I’ve typically been wary about practices of feeding wild animals for enhanced sighting of them, but I observed or felt no harm being done to these amazing animals by them being fed. They are not caught, harmed by boat engines, touched by people or disturbed in any ways I could imagine even potentially harmful. Instead, it felt these guys truly cared for protection of the animals, of the reef ecosystem – and the villages and local communities who make their living out of the ocean (and us, their clients). They have extensive research material, blog posts and information on their website and collaborate with the government of Fiji.

I can’t express with words how amazing, eye-opening and wonderful this experience was, and I wouldn’t say that if I had any doubts about the activity being safe – both for the sharks and for us the divers. There are many ways to protect our oceans, reefs and their inhabitants – shark diving being an option when organized with benefits of all in mind.

I would like to encourage people to learn more about the oceans, about sharks and what their preservation means for us all. Set your foot in the ocean, don’t be afraid. I dived among 30 bull sharks and yes, still got all my limbs intact. And several cool videos and memories to last a lifetime!

 

 

 

 

 

 

All-Male Panels and the Gender goals

“Congratulations on an all-male panel”- is a satiric expression used in social media to bring attention to the lack of female speakers in international conferences. Having attended many and organized quite a few, I definitely acknowledge this problem and feel a pain in my chest every time I see one. Whether it’s one I just attend or one I’m organizing.

A colleague from a partner organization, a well-credited women’s right advocate, recently told me she attended a forum where all speakers were men. All. Mostly middle aged white men. When this was pointed out by an audience member in the Q&A, the facilitator’s response was to ask questions from only female members of the audience. “You are a woman, how do you think about the discussed issue”. You can imagine this made the already awkward and uncomfortable situation even worse. Ask a question from a woman just because of her gender?

Maybe the organizer of that event had just made an unintentional mistake, overlooked the gender balance or been extremely unlucky with last minute speaker changes. I don’t know.

Having organized events myself, I know just too well how difficult it is to achieve a gender balance in the speakers. I can’t speak for other organizations, but I know our team is 100% committed to aiming at full gender balance and that every member of the team is dedicated and eager to achieve it. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we try our very best. Every time we discuss a speaker, we discuss gender. There’s a huge cheer in the office each time we identify and confirm a female speaker, and we keep listing excellent women we hear of to add to our dream lists for speakers.

So why do we not achieve a 50-50 gender balance in the speaker line-up?

It should be obvious. There are relatively many more men in senior leadership and expert positions as there are women. Most (Asian) Ministers and senior government representatives are men. Even in the international developmental organizations a majority of leaders are men. And these are the people we target to speak in our forums. Decision makers, leaders, senior experts.

We try to tap into any and every opportunity to invite and confirm women speakers to all our panels. Sometimes we even need to be a little flexible with a level of seniority, or proven speaking skills, just to avoid an all-male panel. I can’t imagine any event organizer wanting an all-male panel and I know we work very hard to avoid them. That’s because we support gender equality. We support women rights and we believe women should have equal chances, equal pay, equal recognition. We want to do our part, but it isn’t easy. The world is still failing this, and so do we.

With our last forum, organized this week in Singapore, we pushed our team even harder than ever. Our internal ambition was to achieve a gender balance across the full forum, and at the minimum have at least 1 woman speaker in every panel. We organized 4 plenary level panels and 17 workshops, with over 100 speakers in the course of the 2 days, so it was a huge task to achieve. We also had to confirm a senior government representative for each workshop panel, and take notice of the balanced regional representation and level of seniority and speaking eloquence, in addition to the gender question.

We did not achieve a full gender balance, but 1/3 of our speakers were women. Two out of the 17 organized workshop panels were all-male – though in one of these, we had a brilliant woman confirmed but last minute the company made a change and sent a man instead due to her sudden unavailability. Still, we did not achieve our aim but we tried extremely hard and are proud of the efforts.

The issue of gender inequality has to be raised at every level, has to be fought with collaborative efforts at homes, in schools, in companies and organizations and in the governments. As Michelle Yeoh, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador stated in her powerful speech at our forum, when gender equality is achieved, “everyone wins”. Gender equality doesn’t only bring benefits for women but it supports communities, boosts economic progress and improves company performance. These are proven facts yet we are far from achieving gender equality.

I don’t ever want to organize an all-male panel and neither does our team, but we need the governments, companies and organizations to appoint more women in senior positions and we need the women to agree and speak in our forums. We need collaboration to achieve full gender equality. Conferences give a good glimpse into the problems and level gender status, they can give a face to where the societies, governments and companies stand with achieving the gender goals. Hopefully in the near future the male-dominance turns into gender equality. Everywhere.

 

 

 

Responsible Business

How would you define responsible business and who’s allowed to claim it their mission and vision?

Our company organizes international sustainability conferences, convening leaders and decision-makers from all stakeholder groups; governments, businesses, international organizations, development experts, ground-level non-profits, financial institutions and media. The aim is to bring together all stakeholders to facilitate action and outcome -focused discussions for sustainable development, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as the framework and guideline.

Before every forum, we get some comments and complaints on speakers, sponsors or partners, claimed to not be “responsible” enough, to take part in a “responsible business forum”. The cursed ones typically including  the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Philip Morris International, Asia Plantation Capital and others. Sometimes also the Nestle’s, Coca-Colas or Cargill’s. 4 weeks before our annual flagship event, the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development Singapore“, the topic is trending again. The international development organizations are most often the ones wanting to define which kind of company is allowed to be on the same panel as they are. Who should be in the room, who can speak with whom.

My passion is to engage the private sector to the development work. To help companies understand how they can sustain their business and create positive impact, creating win-win situations for all stakeholders. Connect them with right partners, providing them platforms for seeking out collaboration and support. I believe the forums we organize provide the right kind of platform for sharing best practices, meeting relevant stakeholders, challenging others and seeking for collaboration.

Shouldn’t it be beneficial to a cause-motivated organization, to have a public, open platform, where they can engage in the conversation and challenge those whose positions or perspectives they don’t support or agree with? Instead of opposing to appear on the same stage with a company whose business they don’t support, use that as an opportunity to question them and challenge them?

It’s a bold move from controversial companies to join such discussions, to come in front of a public eye, willing to reply to criticism and open for discussion.

Equally, those whose business practices or field of operations are causing negative impact, are the ones most in need of open platforms where they can learn more about sustainability. Where they might learn about solutions to apply to their business models that make them more responsible.

Isn’t that what development is all about? Improvement? In the corporate-world, advancing sustainable business practices, promoting proven solutions and encouraging adaptation of more responsible and sustainable business operations?

I appreciate the work of different types of organizations, which help to push the bar up and demand private sector to stand up to their corporate responsibilities. I see the need for the idealistic, perfectionist perspectives. Yet, I find that real progress comes from collaboration, from working together with realistic objectives. I also believe everyone needs to be included in the conversations, invited to share their perspectives and to have the chance for learning from others and to be engaged in dialogue. Listen, and learn, applies to all sides.

 *In case it’s not obvious that my views are my own and that I’m writing solely as an independent person, being alone responsible for my writing, please refer to my earlier post about me owning my views, my words, my opinions. 

 

 

Shark Encounters

I saved a shark.

It sounds pretty cool, and was purely amazing. I love sharks, small and large, as they are such gracious, thrilling creatures. And one of them is swimming free in the ocean thanks to me. Or last I hope so, after I cut it out of fishing nets where it had been entangled completely on a  side of a wreck. Poor thing was rather disoriented after the release, and luckily there were other divers near by shooing it out away from the threatening ghost nets.

This baby-shark rescue operation is but a drop in the ocean, and unfortunately mostly we hear about the more negative stories. Or more entertaining ones. This week trending has been the video from Mexico where a great white gets into the cage with a diver, after the bait apparently had been located too close to the door and somehow the incident could happen. Shark got out alive of the cage, luckily, though seemingly with some physical damage. The diver, well he was lucky to survive the encounter as well. The operators (heard yelling “is someone inside”) hopefully won’t – business-wise. Such reckless operations, no sense of responsibility. Not towards their customers, nor towards the animals.

Many people are afraid of sharks but I’m afraid for them. Sharks get killed for their fins, chased out of their natural habitat, and suffer from the loss of biodiversity, warming waters and reduced nutrition. It’s all our fault.

I dream of seeing the great white, but not on its own cost. Not on the risk of it getting harmed.

I look forward to many more encounters with sharks, in conditions where both of us are free. Not me being locked up in a cage, nor with the shark being entangled in fishing nets. And most certainly not with the fin on my plate.

Live and let live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t love wasting food. Do you?

Do you waste food? I do sometimes but have become quite good at eating all I take and using all I buy. Mostly probably because I don’t cook so there’s next to nothing to waste from an empty fridge.

Food wastage and lost are huge problems globally. About a third of all the food produced globally, is lost or wasted. Technically, we produce enough food for no one to go hungry in the world. The figurative fact doesn’t comfort any of those 800 million people who don’t have enough food to lead a healthy life. Or to live at all.

I currently live in the wealthy city-state Singapore, which despite its small geographical size is one of the world’s top food secure countries. With the extremely limited agricultural ability, Singapore heavily relies on imports for food. Yet out of it’s annual imports, in 2014 it wasted 13 % of it. According to the statistics form the National Environment Agency, Singaporeans waste 788,600 tonnes of food, which equals to the weight of 108 full load double-decker buses.

Attitude change of consumers – normal people like you and me – is essential to tackle the issue. I recently saw the below disturbing video by Ministry of Funny, giving light to the controversy of food wasting. People on the streets got really mad about the comedian throwing away food and tried to stop him – yet at home, behind closed doors, they do the exactly same thing. All the time. Maybe the food is not intentionally wasted – but it should be intentionally addressed.

Eating every you take and buy won’t directly benefit any of the hundreds of million hungry people. But it is an easy action contributing to more efficient and reliant food distribution chain development and over time supporting to reduction of food waste. Being conscious of ones own choices and demanding grocery markets and food stalls to improve their practices as well will have direct positive impact. Reducing your own food waste is the least you can do.

Why I’m Vegetarian

I was just reading an excellent article by Marc Gunther on the meat eating (bad) habits where he was wondering why the environmental NGOs are doing nothing about it. There’s next to nothing lobbying against eating meat by the environmentalists, although meat production, especially beef, is disastrous for the planet.

Meat eating keeps the meat production alive. Beef, pork and chicken take up huge areas which otherwise could be used for growing plants for increased food production. The animals are fed with soy that is most often not produced sustainably and that causes destruction of valuable rainforests. Etc.

Then there are the animal rights to account for as well – a person must be emotionally disturbed if they don’t get disturbed by the sight of how live animals are transported and treated  and stored in most places. Had I not been vegetarian already, by the time I saw live chicken been dragged from their feet, tied to each other, next to a hot motorbike engine in chaotic traffic in Vietnam, well that sight would have been enough.

Yet, my story is different. I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years. I know it’s possible to live healthy and happy without eating meat. I’ve never been preaching about being vegetarian nor tried to convert my family and friends. I’m also not about to start but I can prove how easy and doable it is. Even in vegetarian unfriendly places like the Philippines. For a sample’s sake, my story could be shared as well.

I’m vegetarian out of no noble reasons. I’m aware of the positive “side effects” of being a vegetarian but these had nothing to do with my decision to stop eating meat at the age of 14. No. I was a school girl in Finland in the mid-nineties, when vegetarian was something rare or even unheard of. But then one girl in my school did have ethical thinking and wanted to stop eating meat. The cafeteria, which must offer a free school lunch for all the students, had no choice but to prepare her a separate meal every day. When I saw her walking past the long lunch queue, walking into the kitchen and getting her special meal, something inside me lit up. I don’t need to queue either!

I became a vegetarian out of my despise for queuing.

I’ve remained a vegetarian for all these years out of a habit. Of course I’ve embraced all the positive impacts too, increasingly so in the years I’ve been living in the developing countries. There’s no way back. For me being vegetarian is an easy habit which brings positive impact to the planet. I’m not perfect, I eat milk and egg products. I travel by plane and sometimes use the a/c at home. There are other sins too but no need to reveal everything?

Point is, being vegetarian is easy and it’s common. It’s also not the only way forward. Reducing meat consumption is a great first step. Considering own consumer behaviour and how the food has been produced, could follow. Nowadays vegetarian food is extremely tasty and the variety of options incredible. Try it yourself, if you don’t believe me. The only problem might be, that the queues for vegetarian food stalls are getting longer and longer.