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?






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. 



The Future in Good Hands

We had our large international food and agriculture conference last week in Indonesia, drawing a crowd of over 420 leaders from businesses, governments, civil society and media. In addition, we offered for both international and local university students with related study-interests the opportunity to volunteer in note-taking and social media support. We had roughly 40 students participating, from different backgrounds and with distinguished skills sets. The one common feature however, was the passion and interest they demonstrated – towards learning from the tasks, from us the organizers, from the speakers and through networking.

It was heartening to see these brilliant, passionate future leaders with such excellent attitude towards the opportunity given to them to learn and meet important people from their respective fields. There’s much adore about the Millennials nowadays, which I find usually find a bit annoying but there is certain truth in it as well. The young, future hopes seem well motivated to take over the world.

Most of these students had a big smile on their face throughout the 2 days, and based on their feedback at the forum and afterwards, I feel humbled and honored to have had worked with them. If anything, they wished to do even more, there were no complaints but only generous, sincere gratitude for the opportunity. More than anything, that shows their eagerness for learning and their understanding how every opportunity needs to be embraced.

A complaint one often hears in relation to the millennials is their lack of practicality and at times too high expectations. I can see that too – many have been brought up in an environment where their basic needs have been readily gathered to, giving them the opportunity to fully focus on their studies, on intellectual activities. Their eagerness to climb the career ladder seems to make them forget how important and essential the first steps are. These shouldn’t and can’t be skipped, as that’s where many crucial basic skills and work ethics are mastered.

Still, it gives me hope for the future that the up-coming generation is head-strong, eager and fearless in their quest for their turn to lead the world. Moreover, the passion for sustainability, the values towards responsible business and drive for keeping the planet safe is apparent. Now they need the skills, the practical experiences and some guidance before they are ready to take over.

The will is there, and they will find the way.


Do I Really Know What’s Happening

Over a working dinner tonight,  a business partner asked me what my perception of the sustainability field currently is. Are the companies really increasing sustainable business, are more companies getting engaged and is the development going to the right direction?

Having just completed a 2-day forum focused on responsible agribusiness, with over 450 people from government, business, NGOs, media, and the development communities participating, I certainly was inclined to say yes. We had smallholder farmers and representatives of farmer organizations involved. There were 40 students, the hopes of the future in the room. The minister of agriculture and minister of industry delivered a speech. Yes, we are moving the right way, the development is encouraging and collaboration increasing.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and signing of the Paris agreement certainly made 2015 an encouraging and hope-boosting year. Our forum engaged many more companies than before and initial feedback was remarkably positive.

But is this real? Are we really on the right path? Even, or especially, at encouraging and inspiring times as now, shouldn’t we be questioning the direction and the efforts to get there? A saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Do we really know where we are going? Do I know the destination?

Questioning the presence isn’t necessarily being cynical. It’s a required pit stop for checking the direction, making sure that we’re on the right track. It’s so easy to lose sight of the goal when you’re getting excited and maybe too self-sure.

In the sustainability field, I have to question my perception of the general atmosphere and of the status of the development, duly because I’m very biased. I’m biased for judging the development as I’m looking for all the right signals. I read news about sustainability, about the projects and initiatives of companies and organizations. About the commitments of the governments and the actions undertaken by businesses. I speak with like-minded people, who have the same passion and interest for the field. I follow the companies communication and collaborate with those who are open and ready for it.

So do I really know what’s happening, or do I just know what’s happening among my “peers”, among those who are “in” in the sustainability field?

Yes and no. I do know it’s a growing number of companies who are publicly committing to sustainability actions, such as conserving energy and water, and supporting their supply chain. Governments have pledged their support for achieving the global goals. There is momentum – big part of the world is listening. But is there enough action?

Are the governments truly committed and are their commitments enough? Are consumers really getting more aware and interested in sustainability? Will they change their consumption habits and go beyond caring to actual action? Will businesses re-design their business strategies, become more socially engaged and act on their words? Are the non-profits supporting the efforts of the businesses and government and demanding for real change and commitment?

I don’t have the answers. I live in my own bubble. In my world the movement is real, action is taking place and momentum is almost tangible. But it’s my world, and no, I can’t be sure my world is the reality. My world is getting greener, but I don’t know how big the grey area is. And I’m not sure which one is leading and which one will be winning. I can just hope that my perception is right, that my hopes change into a reality.

Even if I can’t eliminate my biased view of the world, I won’t stop believing in it. I don’t have the answers but I’m asking the questions. I want to learn to understand the world better. Those on the green side should seek for communication and understanding with the greys. Impossible can become possible. I will work to make my world the reality.