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Corporate Social Responsibility: Empowerment Is Key

August 10, 2015

Digicel_haiti_schoolMany businesses understand the importance of giving back to their communities; research has shown that in order to earn trust in the communities where we work, corporations should start by doing “good business” that has a positive societal impact. But there’s more we can and should do to ensure that our efforts have a lasting effect.

The role of corporate citizenship is of utmost importance in emerging economies where resources are scarce and extreme poverty has created an urgent need for initiatives and partnerships that can improve the well-being of local people. This need is even more pronounced in countries like Haiti that have suffered extreme devastation. The massive earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010 — a disaster that killed more than 200,000 people, left 1.5 million homeless, and damaged or destroyed 4,000 schools — created both an urgent need for immediate foreign assistance and a recognition that the effort to rebuild devastated communities and the Haitian economy would take years. While much work remains to be done, I can report that significant progress has been made.

Paradis des Indiens, a Digicel Foundation Haiti grantee, is a small local organization whose efforts to improve education in Haiti’s Grande Anse region offer lessons for all corporate sustainability funders. Using a community-service model, the organization engages children in school improvement projects and volunteer work. Children are encouraged to play an integral role in these projects and, through their participation, develop both a deeper sense of pride in and a sense of responsibility for their communities, which, in turn, inspires a greater commitment among them to rebuilding Haiti itself. While this kind of involvement in community service isn’t typical in developing countries, the impressive ability of Paradis des Indiens to instill a sense of pride and ownership in children is a perfect illustration of how a focus on empowering community members can lead to successful and sustainable projects over the longer term.

At the Digicel Foundation Haiti we believe education is the best way to empower people to create change in their communities. For people who have never been to Haiti, it’s nearly impossible to understand just how basic and ill equipped the schools there are. Imagine trying to learn in a tarp-covered structure with no dividers between classrooms as your teacher struggles to be heard over the voices of other teachers nearby. Although providing proper infrastructure, as we’ve done through more than a hundred fifty school construction projects, making it possible for children to actually hear their own teacher’s voice, may not seem like much, it has an undeniable impact on children’s ability to learn.

Even more than a proper classroom environment, children need access to a quality education. The reality in most countries is far different. Too many children in impoverished communities do not have access to educational opportunities, and their teachers often are not properly trained. By investing in the training of teachers, corporate sustainability funders can help raise education in these countries to the next level. The Digicel Foundation Papua New Guinea, for example, supports the Isi Learning Teacher Training Program, which provides teachers with professional skills training, phonics courses, and the opportunity to gain experience in the classroom. Many of the participating teachers are unpaid volunteers who want to make an impact in young people’s lives. The training they receive reinvigorates their passion for teaching and goes a long way toward helping them achieve that kind of impact. Similarly, in Haiti we provide an eighteen-month training program that helps reinforce and build individual teacher’s skills. By tracking their progress and sharing the results with them, we are able to incentivize program participants to continue to grow as professionals. Indeed, for many, the program is the first opportunity they have had to receive formal training and feedback. The impact on their knowledge, confidence, and engagement with students cannot be overstated. And that, in turn, leads to students who are more eager and willing to learn.

While my colleagues and I are all about education, our broader focus on creating a sense of ownership and commitment among community members looking to create a better life for themselves and their communities can be applied to any company’s social responsibility efforts.

Sophia_stransky_for_PhilanTopic_125No matter what your cause or area of focus is, the goal of your efforts should be to empower people with practical knowledge, hands-on experience, and a sense of agency. By doing so, you will be helping to inspire them to do great things and ensure that the impact of your own work endures for years to come.

Sophia Stransky is CEO of the Digicel Foundation Haiti.

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