From billions to trillions (would you like a Coca Cola with that?)

The rallying call “billions to trillions” is back. As are desperate fundraising partnerships.

“Billions to trillions” (of dollars) is not a new rallying call for funders to cough up lots of money (in case you’d like a reference point, that’s 12 zeros in a trillion, or a million millions).

I’ve worked for a few organisations that have used this same statement, and have seen big dollar signs flash in not just one manager’s eyes (just imagine applying for your next job or promotion, and having to fill out that field “what budget did you oversee in your last role”).

At COP27 this week, it’s clear that the “billions to trillions” rallying call is back. And as very few governments are able to cough up a few trillion (and government fiscal space continues to shrink in many key donor countries), the target is to get private capital. Our economy is awash with private capital and big profits, so why not share a bit (or a lot)?

I’ve worked in fundraising for most of my career. I have seen how private sector partnerships often go. There are private bonds (sometimes tried, most often failed, and these have proven to be immensely expensive to fundraise for and manage). There are private foundations (most of whom dangle extremely big carrots but then fund peanuts with tight strings for most initiatives). And then there are private companies.

Take the COP27 climate summit and a highly criticised partnership with – yes, you guessed it – Coca Cola, one of the largest plastic polluters in the world. A mistake? Absolutely. An anomaly? Definitely not.

Many of the health organisations I have worked for thankfully have black lists that they do not take funding from (directly). Weapon makers, tobacco, big oil.

But surprisingly, many try to close an eye when that funding is indirect. There are oil development funds, and many governments are directly involved in producing and selling weapons (and some using them, also against their own populations or groups such as LGBTQI+).

And then there are companies like Coca Cola, or alcohol companies, which are sold as “having the most far-reaching logistics networks that can reach even the most remote and vulnerable populations” (see many press releases that still use this as a justification).

Around a decade ago, I was invited to showcase health projects in an African country to a group of donors. As this was a bit earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time preparing, reading up on the mortality statistics, developments over the past decades, and better understanding the science behind what the projects we were showcasing were doing. I didn’t ask for, nor did I get a briefing on, who these donors were. A vodka company CEO, a high manager from a luxury whiskey and cognac conglomerate… all very nice people, keen to make the world a better place, at least during this trip and with some dollars (no trillions, just in case you were wondering).

Many people are thankfully raising awareness on partnerships with companies whose missions or impact defeat the fundraising cause. Many raise questions about accountability and interests (e.g. pharma companies make profits from sickness, why would they invest trillions into eradicating those same diseases…?). I have definitely been a laggard to even become aware of these, and only later on in my career started asking – and pushing back – when fundraising ambitions and pressure seemed to make any ethical or even rationally sensible black list crumble.

Many organisations, and even advocates, justify such partnerships claiming that they are partnering “with the lesser evil”. Coca Cola is not as bad as alcohol. Vaping companies are not as bad as big tobacco (which is taking over or creating vaping companies…). And crisps (American chips) are not as bad as McDonalds. And a lack of accountability and transparency is better than – well – not achieving your fundraising target, and hence your life-saving mission.

The readers (probably not reading my blog) who now respond “And this is why we need IFIs and foundations…” should probably dig a bit deeper.

Everyone else, before we use the “billions to trillions” call, let’s figure out a better way to get there. It may be something ludicrously old-school like closing tax havens, and taxing billionaires and companies. Or decreasing aid dependency and loans that create disincentives for national and sub-national investments. It may also be a good idea to make public those black lists (or rapidly pull one together if you don’t have one)?

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