USAID has just announced a partnership with IBM and CDC Development Solutions (an NGO focused on international corporate volunteerism) to help corporations make their employees’ expertise available in developing countries. Specifically, USAID, IBM, and CDC Development Solutions are establishing a “Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism” as a virtual venue where companies can exchange best practices and share successes. USAID and CDC Development Solutions will also provide country-specific guidance to members with respect to their volunteer programs.
USAID’s announcement calls attention to the growing significance of development work by private corporations at a time of shrinking federal budgets. For example, IBM tells me that since July 2008, its Corporate Service Corps has sent out more than one thousand of its employees as volunteers to nearly twenty countries. Africa has been a major beneficiary, with more than three hundred going to South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, and Egypt. CDC Development Solutions estimates that U.S. companies this year altogether will send up to two thousand employee volunteers to some 58 nations. To provide context, according to recent official figures there are currently 8,655 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving abroad, though usually for much longer periods, and at federal expense.
According to an IBM executive I have spoken with, its projects are carefully vetted in advance from the prospect of practicality, local buy-in, and sustainability. IBM employees actively seek these volunteer opportunities, and available slots are highly competitive. Most of the successful candidates are mid-level, and they are usually in-country for about four weeks, with an additional four months divided between pre-departure preparation and post-project follow-up. After their return, they remain in close contact with those whom they have assisted and subsequent IBM teams. My IBM interlocutors also commented that the experience enhanced their employees’ cultural sensitivity which has a cumulative, positive impact on the corporate culture.
In an era of very tight federal budgets and slow American economic recovery, this public-private partnership deserves to be better known. It has the potential for mobilizing millions of dollars worth of expertise for development assistance from the American private sector and at virtually no additional cost to the taxpayer. Such corporate initiatives may also have the added advantage of being exceptionally nimble, so they can respond easily to specific circumstances in the countries where they are working.