The people behind the partnerships: How Asian business leaders are championing public-private partnerships for social good

By Annelotte Walsh and Wilson Lau, Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS)

Private funding and investment are critical sources of funding for social needs in many parts of Asia. But when it comes to complex societal challenges, from inequality to climate change, individual philanthropic efforts can only stretch so far. If the Covid-19 crisis is indicative of the social delivery challenge in the region, then a seismically different approach is needed to solve the multitude of other social and environmental imperatives we continue to face.

This is not news to many business leaders in Asia, where business leaders and philanthropists are often one and the same. They are increasingly partnering with governments to address social and environmental challenges and generate impact at scale. In our recently released report 'Public-Private Partnerships for Social Good: Rethinking PPPs', we explore 20 examples of such public-private partnerships (PPPs) across 11 Asian economies, gathering insights from 50 experts and stakeholders. We look at what these partnerships look like, why they are becoming increasingly popular, and what makes them impactful. 

We want to focus on one notable – but not surprising – finding here: that behind most of these partnerships stood one or more key individuals. Business leaders and philanthropists whose passion, vision and determination were instrumental in getting these PPPs off the ground. And in guiding it from startup to growth, these leaders brought others to the table and helped sustain partnerships in the long run. We call them champions.

What drives business leaders’ involvement in public-private partnerships for social good? Often it is a deeply rooted desire to do good. 

Take, for example, Pakistani businesswoman Seema Aziz, founder and managing director of Sefam Group of Companies. Ms Aziz’s formative experience of witnessing scores of children out of school in her country galvanised her to action. Using philanthropic funds from her textile company Sefam, Ms Aziz founded the CARE Foundation to build schools and provide quality education to underprivileged children in Pakistan. From the first school built in 1991, efforts grew year on year and ultimately caught the attention of the Punjab government resulting in a public-private partnership to improve the provision of public education through the adopt-a-school model. The programme now manages over 180 schools across Lahore, Pakistan. 

In addition to initiating and convening PPPs, passionate and dedicated business leaders are also pivotal at different life stages of the PPP through the business acumen and technical expertise they bring to the table. This sentiment was echoed by top Asian business leaders in our network, 55% of whom believe that corporate management expertise is their greatest value add to PPPs. 

Indian philanthropist Rohini Nilekani is a testament to this. Driven by a deep desire to enable people to live with empowerment and dignity, as well as an astute understanding that societal change requires a collaborative approach between governments, markets, and society (‘samaaj, sarkaar, and bazaar’), Ms Nilekani spearheaded several PPPs tackling some of India’s most pressing social challenges. One of these is EkStep, a digital education platform launched together with her husband and co-founder of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani. The Nilekanis’ roots in technology as well as Nandan’s experience in creating the infrastructure for India’s biometric programme, Aadhaar, generated lessons that were applied to EkStep. Their track record in this space also helped attract government and other private sector experts to engage in this initiative. 

Finances to sustain efforts and grow is an ever-present concern for PPPs. When passionate corporate leaders commit funding it not only helps partnerships build and grow, but long-term financial backing can also be crucial to help ensure impact is sustained well into the future. Indeed, in several cases, we saw business leaders make long-term or even 'as long as it takes' commitments. This is often where the work of the PPPs taps into an inner passion and calling.

Take the case of Suphachai Chearavanont, Chairman of True Corporation, who has long believed in the transformative power of education. Mr Chearavanont is one of the founding members of the CONNEXT ED Foundation in Thailand, a PPP dedicated to improving the quality of education in public schools. In addition to seeding the foundation and enabling its growth to date, he has committed support to the programme in perpetuity. 

In China, Lao Niu, founder of the China Mengniu Dairy Company, is deeply committed to tackling desertification in Inner Mongolia. This has led to the establishment of the Inner Mongolia Shengle International Ecological Demonstration Zone Project. Recognising that environmental projects require a long horizon and plenty of patience to achieve results, Mr Niu has committed to funding the project for the next 30 years. 

These are just a few of the many ways in which Asian business leaders have shaped and driven PPPs for social good. Our report covers more examples as well as other facets of PPPs for social good, including what they look like and what strategies can maximise impact. As the world comes to grips with the social and economic repercussions of Covid-19, the need and potential for multi-stakeholder collaborations are becoming more evident. Business leaders should embrace these much-needed collaborations and jump into the PPP driver’s seat. 

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 Annelotte Walsh                                       and                                       Wilson Lau

Annelotte Walsh and Wilson Lau are senior researchers at the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS). CAPS is an independent research and advisory organisation committed to maximising private resources for doing good. Its mission is to improve the quantity and the quality of private social investment, including philanthropy, CSR and impact investment. It does this by generating evidence-based insights on how individuals, companies, and governments can best address social challenges. CAPS works across 18 Asian countries and territories with an extensive network of local partner organisations, and with support primarily from Asian business leaders and philanthropists.

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