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What did Vodafone and the UN Learn from Working Together?

By Jeffrey Swindle on October 26, 2011


Recently leaders from the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and Vodafone Foundation gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. to discuss their projects and key lessons learned after nine years of working together in partnership.  The discussion focused on the broader implications for other public-private-partnerships (PPPs) hoping to contribute to global development.

Drawing on the “Mobilizing Development” report of the partnerships efforts, UNF CEO Kathy Calvin stressed that the partnership slowed down project implementation, at least initially, but made for greater efficiency and long-term impact.  Discussions about how to orchestrate the partnership lasted two years, and it took another two years to decide on the actual projects that the partnership would complete, she stated.

William Kennedy, a senior official from the United Nations Office for Partnerships in New York, discussed the “cultural divide” between business and development.  “I don’t think you can underestimate the effort it takes to bridge the cultural divide between a big company and a foundation.” 

One example is the business mindset to immediately scale projects as large as possible, as opposed to the development mentality of respecting local culture and adapting solutions for particular communities.  He added that what makes this partnership different from other less successful development PPPs are the relationships between the leaders on each side.  Also, they had consistent evaluations of the development projects, which was important in business culture.  Leaders were willing to address the UNF’s needs and shortcomings, and to make extra efforts to complete the work.

Members of the audience voiced questions about the “shared value” and motivations for each organization to partner with the other.  Vodafone had recently bought other telecommunications companies, becoming a global brand right before its partnership with the UN.  Before partnering with the UN on this philanthropic initiative, Vodafone was able to attach its own brand to the UN’s global appeal. 

Other UNF leaders, however, voiced their concerns with this opinion, stating that Vodafone officials took particular care to separate business and philanthropic motivations, citing their willingness to allow service providers to run mHealth initiatives set up by the program as evidence of their philanthropic motivations in their efforts with the UNF.

As for the future of PPPs hoping to meet global development goals, Calvin expressed her opinion that the age of partnerships between one private company and one public organization is coming to an end.  Instead, she said that what the UNF is learning is that alliances, made up of a variety of government, private, and non-governmental organizations, are the future of philanthropy. 

She pointed to the formation of the mHealth alliance, which stemmed from the original UNF-Vodafone partnership, but currently is able to increase scale and efficiency as an alliance with other organizations contributing to different aspects of the program.

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Researcher for USAID Global Broadband & Innovation Interested in ICT4D, M&E, Sen's freedoms, and development side affects.
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