When IBM executive Chandu Visweswariah went to Rio de Janeiro as part of a volunteer team to help city officials plan to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, he found himself immersed in a mash-up of a corporate Peace Corps and "The Apprentice."
"It’s a little of both but without Donald Trump to fire anybody," Visweswariah said, noting the team had just a few weeks to accomplish many tasks that will help both events succeed.
Visweswariah and his teammates, who worked in Rio as part of an IBM program that encourages employee volunteerism, are the foot soldiers of a growing corporate cadre in the U.S. foreign aid program. And with foreign aid programs increasingly under fire in Congress, they are seen as an increasingly important force that could fuel innovation and greater productivity in the government’s efforts to win friends overseas.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Agency for International Development unveiled a program to make it easier for more companies of all sizes to send professionals abroad to help local governments, small businesses and civic groups in developing nations. The new Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism was developed with IBM and CDC Development Solutions (CDS), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that manages companies international volunteer initiatives.
USAID will pay CDS $743,076 over two years to launch the program's website and get it operational. IBM will pay CDS $4.1 million in cash and in-kind donations of technology, materials and expertise and 100 employees.
Sharp increase in corporate volunteerism
CDS estimates that 21 major U.S. companies plan to send nearly 2,000 employee volunteers abroad this year, up from six firms that sent just 280 workers to four countries in 2006. Since then corporate volunteers have worked in 58 countries, CDS estimates, based on company surveys.
Since 2008, IBM has spent $25 million to send 1,100 employees on more than 100 missions in 20 countries through its Corporate Service Corps, said Ari Fishkind, a company spokesman.
Besides Rio, teams have traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to help the city develop strategies in public transportation, water supply and food safety, and gone on multiple missions to Africa, working with local organizations in South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya to support programs that drive economic development. In Ghana, for example, a team worked on a technical school's website and student record database, improved an electric company's computer network and aided in technology to better educate disadvantaged youths.
Each six-to-10 member IBM team spent more than two months in preparation, one month on location and more than two months after their return, wrapping up projects and mentoring other volunteers, IBM said. More than 10,000 employees have applied to participate in the program.
IBM, which has nearly 427,000 employees, acknowledges that projects may occasionally lead to commerce, such as when the government of Cross River State in Nigeria last year hired IBM to assist with two social welfare and health care initiatives. But Big Blue, which last year reported net income of $14.8 billion on revenue of $99.9 billion, said that’s not the objective of its Corporate Service Corps.
Among other companies with new volunteer programs are Dow Corning's Citizen Service Corps, whose pilot project in Bangalore, India, is focused on energy, social enterprises and low-income housing, and drug maker Novartis International, whose Entrepreneurial Leadership Program sent teams to Tanzania and the Philippines to work with NGOs and government agencies on health care initiatives.
USAID says the new program will allow other companies to leverage the expertise of IBM and others to set up or expand international volunteer programs.
The independent federal agency is rooted in the post-World War II European reconstruction program known as the Marshall Plan. With its $21.9 billion budget facing cuts by Congress, USAID is under pressure to spend taxpayers' money more efficiently. Teaming with corporations will mean deploying more high-level expertise faster, cheaper and quicker to USAID's beneficiaries, who in turn eventually may become self-sustainable, agency officials say.
"It is our hope that these resources will drive innovation and allow us to achieve a greater return on investments," Bambi Arellano, counselor to USAID, said in a statement announcing the partnership.
Volunteers will work on food security, sustainable economic growth, global climate adaptation, health, education, information technology and urban development, the agency said.
'Jumping on the bandwagon'
To Ian Vásquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based market-liberal think tank that has called for the abolition of USAID, the agency is "jumping on a bandwagon a little too late … to approximate what occurs in the market."
"Corporations already are doing philanthropic and private foreign aid that far surpasses what the agency does itself," Vásquez said. "It smells very much like a development fad. The aid agency has been dogged by problems of effectiveness and accountability — a problem with international aid in general."
But Carol Adelman, who was an assistant administrator at USAID in charge of foreign aid for Asia, the Middle East and central and eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, said corporate involvement in U.S. foreign aid efforts is nothing new.
"We had a bank of volunteers," she said, referring to the Washington, D.C.-based International Executive Service Corps. "They were invaluable to me in helping on projects when we needed to have that language skill."
Adelman is now director of the Center for Global Prosperity, tracking private-sector philanthropy at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
She called USAID's new program "a smart move because of the battle over the budget" in Congress. Teaming with corporations will save money and boost peer-to-peer relationships that will help build understanding of America and its principles.
Companies know that donating human resources now to efforts around the world may not immediately improve their bottom lines, but long term these efforts could help grow their supply chains and increase the global marketplace for their products, officials said. Also, both government and private-sector officials said they follow the presumption that prosperous democracies tend not to go to war with one another, thereby creating environment where commerce can flourish.
That concept was touted as long ago as 1957, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Congress that the Eisenhower administration would prefer to see private capital eventually replace foreign-aid funds in overseas economic development, according to a Time magazine report at the time.
New form of capitalism
"The reality is that to be able to achieve Millennium Development Goals — to improve the well-being in the poorest places on Earth — requires a partnership of government, corporations and non-profits," said Samuel A. Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, an alliance of 190 U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
"With individuals going into long-term projects, you are in essence getting a private Peace Corps, and the technical expertise that comes with it, and increased mutual understanding between two countries," Worthington said of the new USAID program.
The USAID partnership will offer structure and training needed to make sure volunteers also seen as citizen-diplomats are aware of cultural sensitivities while delivering help, Worthington said.
"The new face of America overseas, often privately funded, can be very positive," he said.
In some cases, corporate engagement also can be tied to promoting social welfare that advances companies' needs, Worthington said, citing a PepsiCo program in Ethiopia that assists farmers growing chickpeas, a nutritious supplement for undernourished children and the foundation for snacks and meals the corporation can sell.
This form of responsible capitalism improves the well-being of citizens while allowing the company to gain value, Worthington said.
"This is better than spending money to improve a corporate image after creating a negative impact you might have caused," he said.
Pierre Ferrari, chief executive officer of nonprofit Heifer International, told msnbc.com he doesn’t begrudge the corporate newcomers.
"It makes sense to work together … At Heifer we work with the poorest of the poor, small-holder farmers, producers who need a market for their goods," said Ferrari, a former Coca-Cola USA vice president and a member of the board of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. "(But) everyone brings a separate and complementary expertise. NGOs have expertise in community development at a grassroots level; governments can assist with infrastructure and laws; companies like IBM provide financial resources and intellectual property, even market demand for emerging markets in the same field, such as dairy. A partnership can include corporations as both buyers and mentors."
And the personal touch of the volunteers is essential, Ferrari said.
"The fact that these corporate volunteers are prepared to travel and stay in countries where, frankly, it's not very comfortable or convenient, that they're prepared to help for an extended period, speaks highly to their commitment to the mission and meaningful participation," he said.
On the ground in Rio
Providing that corporate perspective was a key accomplishment for IBM's Visweswariah, whose engineering expertise lies in designing computer chips. In Rio, he focused on a personal interest that is also a requirement for the International Olympic Committee: sustainability.
Visweswariah and his wife own a zero-carbon-footprint home 60 miles north of New York City. In Rio, sustainability meant helping officials focus on how to meet promises made to the IOC on environmental standards for new buildings, ethanol for vehicles, solar power for pools and handling waste and recycling.
"We spent three weeks carrying out consultant projects," Visweswariah said of his team, comprised of executives from India and Australia as well as the U.S. “… We did not do the work for the client, but set up a framework so they could do their own work."
The team tapped other Olympic host cities — including Vancouver, London and Beijing — to consult about best practices and reached into "the far corners of IBM" for information technology help with traffic, security and crowd control. Members also advised Rio's maintenance department in setting up adopt-a-space programs for public parks and squares, connected with citizens to use social media to express pride in their city and worked with Rio's job-attraction agency to ensure that a properly trained workforce would be available.
The experience of working in Brazil also benefited those who participated, Visweswariah said, adding that he came back to IBM with what he said are deeper, broader and valuable management, consulting and networking skills.
"For the team of people you send, it's a marvelous opportunity to grow skills and grow an understanding of the global nature of work," Visweswariah said.
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