Two Worlds – How far apart?

This week I was fortunate enough to travel with two of my Zambian colleagues to spend a week in the company of a 8 other social sector / private sector partnerships at a business school just south of Paris. The pioneering program aims to leverage private sector skills and experience in a variety of organizations which provide HIV/AIDS programming across the world. The group was formidably eclectic with lawyers, doctors and consultants amongst the private sector volunteers and an equally impressive social sector representation from countries as diverse as Uganda, India, Ukraine, Cambodia and even Myanmar.


The purpose of the week was to allow the partnerships to meet and work together in an academic setting and to guide our budding partnerships along their way with the help of some management training and of course the tool most beloved of business schools – the case study! I am very fortunate to have a full 12 months based in country with my Zambian colleagues whereas most other partnerships will have to work through a few short country visits and multiple teleconference and email updates across the same time period. A challenge that I don’t envy.

Many of our discussions centered on what differentiates private from social organisations and once identified asked whether we could learn and leverage from those differences. Unsurprisingly stereotypes abounded, from questions regarding levels of social sector efficiency to suggestions of private sector moral compass deficiency. While at times it was apparent that we do talk very different languages (I was very glad of my three week crash course of NGO speak) I failed to see anything fundamentally different in the way we go about things. After all we are all only human.

If there is a critical difference, to my eye, it is the issue of measuring return on activity – and consequently making decisions of what to prioritise and where to operate. This is a relatively straightforward and often purely monetary equation in the private sector, do the returns justify the investment? By contrast, the questions of measurement and indeed return in the social sector seem devilishly difficult and fraught with ethical and practical challenges. How do you accurately estimate how many people have avoided HIV in a given community? And how do you measure whether the $1 million spent achieving this goal was not better spent reducing the impact of malaria in another community? In a world where problems still outpace aid by a healthy margin, ethically tough choices of how and where to spend that money seem set to continue for a very long time to come.

One fantastic website that our professors shared with us was Click the link and watch the impact of HIV on life expectancy in Africa in the last few decades. As it evolves, see what that meant for African GDP vs. the rest of the world (hardly in a good place to begin with) over the same time period. It is heart breaking to see life expectancy and GDP actually move backwards as we reach the turn of the century in many African nations. In a world of hard choices, this illustrates (at least to little old private sector me) in hard economic terms, the continued pressing need to tackle a virus that predominantly strikes the youngest and most productive members of these economies.

Overall, I found much of the week enlightening, thought provoking and intensely humbling. To hear our Burmese classmate describe his work to provide HIV services to commercial sex workers, men who have sex  with men and injecting drug users within the confines of the military situation such as the one he faces in Myanmar was once again a stark reminder of what a real job (private sector or social sector) looks like.


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