Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. Photo by: Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Much has been made of the stark contrast between the high-powered assembly of global leaders assembled for the annual World Economic Forum in this Swiss mountain town and the tide of anti-globalist anger that will help carry Donald Trump along his 90-minute inauguration parade route to the U.S. presidency on Friday.

That populist wave, directed — in part — against the well-heeled “Davos men” who have found themselves on the losing side of a conversation about economic justice, has forced some self-reflection. Business leaders are talking seriously about socially focused business models that acknowledge and address the downsides of globalization — and they are looking more earnestly for help from civil society groups to understand the needs of communities that have been left behind.

But civil society organizations, working on behalf of causes such as children’s rights and women’s empowerment, are also reflecting on what this moment of global frustration and change means for them. NGOs now find themselves with a more prominent seat at the table this year in Davos — but they are also questioning how their own relationships with underserved communities need to change to foster greater participation and “true engagement.”

Devex spoke with Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen on the sidelines of the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How is Plan International engaging in this week that is described by many as an exclusive club? Have you fully broken through? Do you feel your voice is welcomed into the mainstream of discussions?

The forum has made significant efforts to try and make civil society and other non-corporates feel welcome, feel included in the conversation, and that’s very welcome for us. A large part of my engagements are in the forum’s own conversations around education, skills, gender, health.  They’ve really tried to match our interests with the global agenda issues that relate to us — but also issues core to all of us around social inclusion, exclusion in society, the whole debate about populism and where is the world going and how can civil society help bridge the conversation between the haves and the have nots. I think that’s where they see an interest in having us here, and that’s obviously why we have an interest in being here.

What answer do you have for them on that particular question?

Yeah, I wish.

The core for us at Plan International … is that old established organizations — and we’ve been around for 80 years — are in many ways part of the establishment ... We need to all collectively be working on legitimacy, on transparency and on true engagement and participation with those that we purport to serve. Those principles of legitimacy, transparency and participation are embedded in our new strategy. When I’m listening to what business leaders and governments are saying it resonates in terms of where we all know we need to go, but are finding it hard to break out of our old habits and patterns of engagement.

So there are a few different layers of breaking down barriers that needs to happen here. There’s the old business club that needs to accept civil society organizations. But then the NGOs need to understand themselves to be legacy organizations with their own structures that need to change. What are the specific things you think NGOs need to understand better about themselves and their ingrained behaviors that could benefit from a bit more creativity?

First of all that we can learn from other sectors. Clearly the partnerships that Plan International have, for example with the corporate sector but also with governments, give us some of that. And I’m not talking about philanthropy. It really is about what kinds of business solutions and organizational solutions have been tested or learned elsewhere that we can either adapt or take on wholesale? What are the kinds of win-win situations in terms of partnerships between business and civil society and between different sectors?

I’ve just come from two sessions — one on how confidence is a key driver of women’s economic empowerment and success in business. An organization like mine works with building leadership skills in young girls. A young girl that comes through either a girls’ club in Uganda where she’s helped change the social norms in her community, or a young girl that comes out of a school council in Sweden [does so] with a greater sense of confidence and is likely to succeed more in the workplace. Bringing those two lessons together — what we learn in working with girls and where they get their confidence from, and what businesses need in terms of employees that actually come in with the right level of confidence to succeed, is a good conversation to have.

Right, and perhaps not a conversation both parties were aware was happening in different places. What’s the more frequent occurrence — that two people come to the table from different backgrounds — NGO and business, for example — and learn that they’ve been working on similar things; or is it they come to the table and present completely new perspectives to one another?

I think it’s a little bit of both. First of all the space isn’t new. Over the years we’ve come to expect and know that there are problems we all have and can solve better together, and because we come from slightly different perspectives we can build a better solution. That’s probably more the starting point. I personally find it intriguing when I walk into a room and hear about things I’ve never heard about before … Yesterday in the bus going down the mountain I was with some folks that had a company in California that is at the front end of brain-scanning technology. And it’s not so much, can I take that home and use it in my organization, but simply the thought processes of innovation, and engagement, and how did they get there? That conversation, I think, is very important to an organization like mine that needs to constantly adapt to the new realities of the world.

And we will never move as fast as some of the corporates, because we are slow by nature, because of the way we raise funds and because of the way that we work. In many ways the pace that we have is also a pace that fits with the development needs and patience you need to do, for example, social norm change in communities in rural Indonesia. But being confronted with the speed and the adaptability and the possibilities that the private sector have — but they’re also struggling with — and seeing that they’re also struggling makes you feel a bit better about yourself as well.

Should the development sector always be resigned to not being at the forefront of technological innovation because of its pace?

No, that would be the wrong conclusion. But the types of investments we all need to make in technology — we’re unlikely to have the resources to make those major leaps on our own ... The best way of getting there is really to partner with the private sector. So it’s not about sitting and waiting for a solution to be given to us, it’s really working with them.

For example, a partnership that Plan International has had with Ericsson for years, has been around how do we get education into the remote slums in urban areas where girls generally don’t go to school, because they’re not allowed out, or they’re not allowed to go far for educational opportunities. So how do you get them in there? Ericsson provided the technological backbone for that, in terms of the hardware, the distance learning, the wi-fi. We provided the content — the curriculum, the teacher training, the various pieces. That’s a match made in heaven, because we would never be able to find the resources ourselves to do that without that partnering piece. For me, that’s win-win.

But a prerequisite to that is having some kind of shared goal. Talk to me about the girls’ leadership work, because it seems to me that’s a place where Plan International and a large contingent of the business community has some real shared interest. How have you grown into that space, where are you seeing the most eager uptake from the business community — but where do they still need to come to the table in areas where you can bring real expertise and contextual experience?

As a child rights organization, heavily invested in the education sector for many, many years, Plan International 10 or 12 years ago could see that the girls were dropping out of school, or that they were not transitioning from primary education to secondary education. We’ve been very successful in getting the girls into school, but generally the world is failing on the transition to secondary, and then the girls fall out. So we really started asking ourselves, what’s going on here? What are the barriers to girls’ education — everything from menstrual hygiene to inappropriate sexual behaviors of teachers to social norms in education that don’t actually give girls the confidence to believe that they’ll get a job when they get out. That started our “Because I am a Girl” campaign.

What’s embedded in our new strategy is this specific desire to say, if we for the next five years really focus all our efforts — a billion dollars a year, a presence in 71 countries, engagement with corporates, governments, other civil society organizations — dedicating ourselves to making a real step change on girls’ rights, maybe we can actually, if not close the gap, then at least make the gap a little bit smaller.

What has given us the confidence to do that is what we have seen here at the forum for some years now, and that is that business leaders are really beginning to accept the evidence that ... a more diverse workforce, a workforce where there’s the smallest possible gap in pay between men and women, is also a workforce that delivers higher productivity and a better bottom line. I was sitting — again, on one of the many bus trips up here — with the CEO of a very, very large pension fund. He’s basically saying, ‘we are now embedding in our criteria for good investments that investments have to go to companies where there’s equal pay, because we know that they generally outperform the others.’ That’s an astounding realization, but with that realization they also know that to get the kinds of skills they need, they need to invest in girls getting into school, staying in school. So we’re seeing a lot of interest in that. We’re seeing a lot of interest in skills development.

How much does it matter whether or not a business leader really understands this long view of girls’ leadership, women’s empowerment, gender equality? You could have a CEO commit to equal pay and a 50-50 split between women and men in leadership positions without understanding that some of these issues that are barriers to girls’ education are what’s holding back the workforce from developing that way. Is it necessary that business leaders be fully literate in development issues, or do they just need to commit to some basic things in the way their businesses run?

I think it helps if they know a bit more. We are, after all, in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals. To be able to look at this holistically, that it’s not simply a question of, build me a workforce that can help deliver product, but build me a workforce for the future that will be able to look holistically at the world’s problems. Some businesses have a more natural need for a holistic outlook in terms of their own future productivity and sustainability. But what I do find is often … when business leaders, male or female, genuinely embrace, for example, the gender dimension, they do tend to want to understand the fuller story as well … We find that that curiosity tends to grow. If you’re really interested, you start asking the questions. Why are women who come into my company less confident? Why do they have this … slightly withdrawn demeanor? Why don’t they sit at the table? Why are they always asking, “do you think I need a raise,” instead of [saying], “I want a raise” — all these kinds of things that are so embedded in the documented behavior of women in the workforce. They start asking questions about that.

Is this an issue where the dichotomy between developed and developing countries is a false one? Or, do the barriers to girls and women’s leadership vary across the developed — developing country divide?

Not the traditional developing — developed line. I do think it really depends on the social norms of any individual country and the gender norms embedded in those countries. But that can be as progressive or enabling in a developing country as in a developed country. I’d hate to divide that down the traditional lines, and I think that’s incredibly important. There is still no country in the world where there is equal pay. It’s not as if it’s not a universal problem. We see strong leaders across the world engaging on these issues. But I think part of the conversation here shows that there is a general need for the global goals and the sustainability agenda to be  much more on the conversation of the World Economic Forum, because that might attract a different kind of leaders, also from parts of the world that might not be here. It’s still a little bit white and male, although if you look down the participation list it’s obviously a lot more diverse than it was 15 years ago.

Devex is reporting live at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Follow Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe @alterigoe and stayed tuned to Devex for more coverage.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.