Coca-Cola’s 5By20 at Somerset House, London

These Coca-Cola bottle caps have been recycled into a beautiful crocheted bag by artisans supported by the 5by20 effort.

In the global effort to empower women, the roles of government and the private sector are changing. Multisectoral partnerships involving NGOs, multinationals, governments, and universities in various combinations are the new norm.  The result is a more agile team, more engaged touchpoints, and a better set of resources.  While old purists (especially in the academy) will continue to bemoan the intrusion of other players into a domain traditionally believed the exclusive purview of government, the new partnerships are producing a creative surge of new programs and promise to fill in where indifferent governments have left major gaps. The Coca-Cola 5by20 program is a good example of this new trend.

Last week, I facilitated a discussion about 5by20 at Somerset House in London. About twenty experts from various institutions, representing corporate, government, inter-government agencies, and NGOs, had been invited to come in and offer feedback about the program. The Coca-Cola team, led by Charlotte Oades, sought diverse perspectives so that they could better design and execute the program.

Somerset House is a glorious building that houses a restaurant and lovely meeting rooms–and is often used as a set for historical dramas.

5by20–which stands for 5 million women to be empowered by 2020–is an elaborate effort to train, mentor, and support women in the Coca-Cola value chain.  Initiatives occur at every point in the product cycle.  There are assistance programs that offer agricultural training for the small farmers who grow various fruits, such as mangoes, that go into Coca-Cola’s products.   Such instruction not only helps ensure supply for The Coca-Cola Company, but also helps the farms to be more productive, thus boosting the women’s income from selling the fruit fresh, as well. There are management and mentoring programs for women who own small distribution companies, as well as for retailers.  There are skills courses for financial literacy and enterprise management.  Post-consumption recycling efforts include rag-pickers and their collectives. Finally, the recycled materials are used by artisans to produce jewelry, hand bags, decorative items, and so on, for sale. (The Harvard Kennedy School has produced a more detailed overview than I can recap here. Their excellent writeup can be seen here.)

The group gathered at Somerset House was experienced and informed about initiatives to include and empower women economically.  The private sector participants were mostly those partnering with Coca-Cola, while the NGO and government people were more likely engaged in efforts of their own, such as making grants to women-owned businesses or offering financial literacy courses.

Aren’t these bags cute? Many beautiful things are on offer from the 5by20 artisans. As we discussed at the London meeting, however, linking up developing country makers with developed country buyers is tougher to do than you might think–even if you’re the Coca-Cola Company.

I was struck by the respect these experts showed toward the Coca-Cola team and their program.   The atmosphere was, in fact, very collaborative, with the group assembled focused on problem-solving and mutual support rather than polarizing into camps.  I think this happened in part because people working on behalf of women tend to see themselves as sharing the same difficult, but inspiring mission.  However, I also think that the Coca-Cola program is as well-developed and thought-out as any other women’s economic empowerment effort going on around the world and thus commands respect on its own merits.  Finally, I think the role of corporations in global efforts to assist in economic development has radically changed in the last ten years.  Cross-sectoral partnerships are the norm now; multinationals are part of the team.

Nevertheless, changing roles for companies and governments was part of the discussion at Somerset House.  There was open discussion of the reluctance of some governments to do anything to help empower women (and, during the breaks, even some ostensibly supportive governments were lambasted for being slow and lacking commitment).  One really might ask:  what does it mean that private companies must take the lead in helping women on a global scale because governments are often unsympathetic?

There are many who insist that all substantive change must come from governments, particularly where women’s issues are concerned.  Yet we are living through a time when the flexibility and culture-crossing strength of the multinationals makes their support crucial.  The collaborative group convened in London last week was yet another instance in which a new way of conducting policy and implementing reform could be seen in action.

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