'Healthy and stable communities' make better business environments

In Indonesia, Chevron built and sponsors two polytechnic schools. Riau Caltex Polytechnic was built in 2001, and Politeknik Aceh was built with our partners in the long-term recovery effort following the 2004 tsunami. More than 2,500 students have graduated from these two schools, and both polytechnics have a current enrollment of 1,833. Photo by: Chevron

Not long ago, there was heavy skepticism around the idea of private industries involving themselves in global and sustainable development. When companies invested in corporate social responsibility, many viewed it as a for-profit public relations stunt. “CSR as PR” was the tagline often bandied about.

But recently, that image has been reversed. Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted business as a “force for good” during a speech before the General Assembly for the  5 years of the U.N. Global Compact, which has been dubbed the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

The Africa Progress Panel, led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and featuring some of today’s most prominent African leaders, such as Graça Machel and Olusegun Obasanjo, also highlighted the leading role of the private sector in their 2015 Africa Progress Report. Calling for African governments to prioritize the development of balanced public-private partnerships and expand private investment, the report noted how business leaders have a responsibility now to join governments, religious leaders and other key partners “to create an irresistible force for change to win the war against poverty and avert climate catastrophe.”

However, often overlooked in these discussions are the companies who have been doing this work all along. Devex recently caught up with Steve Green, Chevron’s vice president for policy, government and public affairs. Chevron was an active member in the development of the groundbreaking 2013 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that explored how the U.S. government and private sector could work together to support the economic success of developing countries. More recently, they helped open the CSIS Global Development Forum 2015, focused on leveraging multistakeholder partnerships for effective and sustainable development.

During the discussion, Green talked about how public opinion of private sector development has changed over the years and how business is making a positive impact in communities around the world. Here are excerpts from that talk.

In the past, it seemed as though global development fell more within the purview of governments, nongovernmental organizations and donor agencies. Why do you think the private sector is now taking such a high profile interest in these matters?

I’m not sure whether we can rightly say that businesses are just now taking an interest in matters of development. At Chevron, for example, we’ve played a very active role in development for quite a long time. In our view, healthy and stable communities are much better business environments than communities that are in constant turmoil. Knowing this, Chevron’s approach has long been to engage and invest in the communities where we do business and try to improve the lives of people in those communities by virtue of our being there.

I tend to think that the change is more about the increased publicity around development today compared to the past. I’ve been in this industry for 35 years, and in the early part of my career you didn’t often hear companies like Chevron talk about the social responsibility aspect of their business, even though we were involved in it. But in the last 10 or 15 years, as publicity around development increased and stakeholder interest in corporate social responsibility and social investments increased alongside it, we’ve seen companies like ours do a better job of sharing the true value they bring to the communities in which they work, helping to create prosperity far beyond just the energy, products or revenue they create.

But we also recognize that we can’t do it alone. At Chevron, it’s our fundamental belief that development is not the purview of any one sector. Instead, we think it’s best to take a partnership approach, with companies bringing their unique talents and skill sets to address the very large challenges development presents. We have very close and long partnerships with agencies like [the U.S. Agency for International Development], NGOs, and with the national governments and local leaders where we work. We know that we can bring skills to the table like engineering project management and capital management, while others bring expertise in areas like health and education.

How can public-private partnerships help advance common development goals and maximize impact?

We all have the same objective, which is to make a positive difference to help solve the large societal challenges facing much of the world today. By working together and leveraging our respective core competencies and skill sets, we have a far better chance of achieving this goal.

Chevron’s experience in Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami is a good example of this. After the tsunami hit Aceh, the devastation was almost indescribable. Chevron — which has been operating in the country since the 1950s — immediately offered emergency relief, sending people, equipment and expertise to the areas worst hit. But because of our commitment to the country and its people, we also wanted to find a way to return the community to a more stable and sustainable path. Working closely with the Indonesian government, USAID and several other NGOs, we realized we could help revitalize the education sector by establishing a polytechnic university in the region.

Chevron knows a lot about building infrastructure and project management, but education is not one of our core skills. When it came to working on the project, we focused our efforts on our specific competencies and brought in experts to help with other aspects of the project, like curriculum development, recruiting teachers and procuring equipment. In 2009, I had the pleasure of participating in the graduation of our very first class. It was thrilling to see how proud the community was of their graduates and the institution we had established. The polytechnic continues to thrive today and is very well-attended and well-funded. It’s a very successful model because it’s not dependent on continuous funding or support from Chevron or USAID or any other organization. That’s how we’re able to maximize our impact, by working together to create projects that are sustainable in their own right.

What role do you see American companies in particular playing in the global sustainable development landscape?

Living in Asia and managing Chevron’s business in the region for eight years taught me a lot about how American businesses and citizens in particular are perceived. I’ve seen that our influence on rule of law and transparency goes far beyond our business contracts. Our influence is demonstrated on a daily basis in how we conduct ourselves and how we do business. That experience really reinforced for me the value of engagement, transparency and collaboration with local communities, host governments and other local stakeholders.

When we start work in a new country, one of the things we seek to transfer to our government partners, our communities, and our local employees is that we strongly believe the path to long-term success is conducting our business in a responsible, transparent and ethical manner. Successful companies like Chevron are built on those values, and successful societies with welcoming business environments should be built on the same.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t have challenges or pressures to do things differently or in ways that might conflict with those values. But by demonstrating our commitment to conducting business responsibly, even in the face of these pressures, we help elevate the conduct of all those with whom we interact and do business. That’s where we really positively influence the communities in which we work.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anna Dirksen

    Anna is a strategic communications consultant working with a variety of health and environment organizations. Previously, she led the communications and outreach strategy at the U.N. University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, with a focus on education for sustainable development. She has also worked as deputy director of communications for the global health organization PSI in Washington, D.C., with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the U.N. Secretariat in New York, and in Rwanda with a global health not-for-profit. She earned her M.S. degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and began her career as a television host, reporter and producer in Canada.