Interview with Amir Dossal Founder of the Global Partnerships Forum and co-initiator of the Pearl Initiative

Amir Dossal, a well-known figure in the international community, and former Executive Director of the United Nations Office for Partnerships, worked for many years at the UN on the development of strategic alliances with corporations, foundations and philanthropists in the perspective of the Millennium Development Goals. He really has been the right man in the right place, because there are not many people who have a public relations gift like him –– he simply seems to know everybody! After “graduating” from the United Nations in 2010, and being a man who likes to keep himself busy, Amir founded the Global Partnerships Forum and co-founded the Pearl Initiative.
Q: You have had a long international career in the UN. Looking back, what has given you most satisfaction?
The most gratifying period was when I was with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, when global events meant that we had to operate around the clock “24/7”. Our purpose was to support the UN’s peacekeeping force in its operations around the world, and respond instantly to their critical needs. This goes back to 1993, a tumultuous moment in history as the world witnessed the crisis in Somalia, the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, the elections in South Africa, and the escalating conflict in Rwanda-Burundi. At that time, what we needed was to ensure that the peacekeepers had all the support they required, and without delay. It was an incredibly satisfying period in the sense that we saw the instantaneous, tangible results of our work.
Q: You have gone from Peacekeeping to Public/Private Partnerships. How did that happen?
I happened to be, as they say, at the right place at the right time. After five years in peacekeeping, I was asked to set up a new office to handle reforms within the United Nations – the Management Policy Office. It just so happened that we had been introducing a lot of innovation within the management of peacekeeping operations. We were leading an effort to streamline how peacekeeping, financial management and logistics could focus on delivering results in an efficient manner. We had a lot of help from Member States, who were ready to provide the expertise, so we set up a working group. The UN Secretary-General at that time, Kofi Annan, asked: “You are doing all this, and now that I am the Secretary General I really need support to make the UN Secretariat responsive to 21st century needs.” Joe Connor, who was then Under-Secretary General for Management, asked if I could help set up the Office. It was indeed a question of being at the right place at the right time, although looking back; it was quite a challenging task.
Q: It seems you did a very good job and that you liked what you were doing?
While nobody wanted reforms, because that would mean cutting their budgets, we encouraged departments to streamline their operations. Working together, we were able to simplify processes, reduce bureaucracy, and then reinvest the resultant savings in development activities – this was the genesis of the Development Accounts, as the funds we generated from this effort, were in turn channeled to support projects in developing countries. While there was some apprehension initially, most departments came up with new ideas to improve efficiency and process, including through the use of new technology, and other innovative approaches.
Quite an extraordinary thing happened during my tenure at the Management Policy Office when Ted Turner approached Kofi Annan in September 1997, with a USD 1 billion personal donation. Ted said: “Kofi, I have looked at my balance sheet. In January 1997 I was worth USD 3 billion and now in September I am worth USD 4 billion. The additional USD 1 billion does not make a big difference to me. I have also noticed that my government has not paid its dues to the UN, so I would like to personally give USD 1 billion to the UN.” Kofi Annan was delighted by the generous offer, pointing out however that the UN did not have a mechanism to accept funds from non-governmental sources, besides there was no arrangement for subrogation of sovereign debt. “This is an issue between the United States government and the United Nations.” To which Mr. Turner replied: “I am committed to supporting the UN’s work, and I want to contribute.”
This was a remarkable moment for the UN, as Ted Turner’s pledge of USD 1 billion, led to the creation of the United Nations Foundation, as well as its interface and counterpart, the UN Office for Partnerships (originally as the UN Fund for International Partnerships). Today, the UN Foundation and the Office for Partnerships continue to successfully build and implement public-private partnerships to address the world’s most pressing problems.
In return, Ted Turner had no agenda, he simply said: “This is money to help support the UN’s work.” So we were able to establish an expert group within the UN, and seek its advice on the key priorities: health, women and population issues, biodiversity, not forgetting peace, security, and human rights.
Crucially, with the help of Ted Turner and Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, and his dynamic team, we engaged new partners from the private sector and civil society, to find the best solutions for addressing global challenges. As a result of Ted’s commitment many business leaders, foundations, and companies came to us saying: “If the UN works with Mr. Turner, can you also work with us?”
Q: It is one of the success stories of the United Nations.
Indeed! There is now a growing band of people who believe that you cannot do anything without partnerships.
Q: We hear a lot about public/private partnerships and, given your extensive experience, what are in your opinion the key elements in this partnership?
We must ensure that we know what we are working to achieve, and moreover, that we know what people want. We need people to tell us about their requirements and the challenges with which they are confronted, so that we can first understand, and then address their needs.
Partnerships are purely about relationships. You cannot have a successful partnership if there is no give and take. It is always important to have an understanding of the other partner’s wants and expectations. You have to be mindful of their corporate and local cultures. Often we encounter the attitude, “Oh! We know the solution!” But actually, we do not know the solution. We cannot simply take a “top-down” approach. The solutions have to come from the bottom-up, from the stakeholders on the ground; the real stakeholders are the underprivileged. They know what they want and what they need; the issue is that the underprivileged just do not have the tools yet to achieve these wants and most basic needs.
Therefore, we reached out to local communities through the UN system and organizations such as WFP, UNFPA, and WHO, and by engaging at a grassroots level, and speaking with the people most in need, we were then able to come up with innovative solutions. We need to continue to rely heavily on innovation….
Q: Some people have had a negative impression about efficiency. They say that the UN has too much power. What do you think about this?
The UN has a board of 192 countries, and like any public sector institution, it has to ensure accountability and provide transparency. This requires checks and balances and following of rules and procedures. Sometimes these can be cumbersome, however the bottom line is that the system is designed to be accountable.
By combining the normative functions of the public sector with the business skills and logistics expertise of the private sector, you increase the chances of sustainable results.
What we did was encourage the culture of –– if you like –– collective engagement. That sometimes meant extra consultations and discussions, but it also meant that we were able to benefit from a broad range of ideas, with no single entity as the sole decision-maker. You would have two or three key UN organizations that collectively came up with a solution. For example, during the establishment of Ted Turner’s partnership, UNICEF stated: “We are prioritizing health.” UNDP in turn said: “We are focused on improving children’s health by building hospitals.” WHO stated: “We reflect the overall policy agenda for children’s health issues.” As they could not be funded independently, we put together a coalition of partners, which included international as well as local NGOs, so as to empower people at the grassroots level.” The aim was to develop high-quality programs, which could then be replicated by others internationally.
We were able to achieve very good results through this collective engagement. One particular success story is the Mother-To-Child Transmission of Diseases Programme, in which UNDP, UNICEF and WHO all participated. Each partner brought something different to the table. We had the expertise at a policy level from WHO; UNFPA provided in-depth research and field expertise; UNDP supplied our on the ground connections with NGOs; and UNICEF of course oversaw our agenda for children’s health. This is just one example, but many such comprehensive programmes were developed, achieving tangible results through collaborative efforts, and pooled expertise and resources.
We alone cannot take credit for this because in effect, we acted to provide the various partners with the platform they required, so that they could subsequently engage in a multi-stakeholder dialogue. We also encouraged partnerships with the private sector to benefit from their leadership, distribution networks and logistical expertise.
Q. Could you tell us something about the Platform and the Global Partnerships Forum?
It became clear during my last ten years, working in the area of partnerships at the United Nations, that there is an enormous amount of interest in working together to create long-term sustainability. At the same time, companies often talk about “corporate social responsibility.” They sometimes use this approach as an instrument of PR, and perhaps as another way to promote their company in the eyes of the public. While the intentions of this initiative are rooted in the right direction, we of course did not want to focus on generating further publicity for corporations. Instead, we identified companies with a genuine desire to help shape economic and social development, which can use their business models to create sustainable growth.
For example, if a company has a factory in Africa, we are happy for them to manufacture things locally as cheaply as possible. However, we also want them to think about how the community is affected by the environment, education, and health etc.; how the supply chain is handled; and to consider long-term sustainability of the community, especially young. Ultimately, if people learn better, they earn better and live better – leading to the well being of society as a whole.
Q: Would you say that what you are doing is a kind of social entrepreneurship?
Actually, it goes beyond social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is about creating investment models that also look at the social rate of return. What we are saying is that we must go beyond that to take an interest in the well being of society – we would like the private sector to see the poor as a market, as a business opportunity. There are a growing number of companies out there who believe in this concept. For instance, look at Nestlé’s Creating Shared Value, which utilizes its business model to tackle challenges surrounding nutrition, water and rural development. Like Nestlé, companies should integrate corporate social responsibility into their core business, by involving the entire system – from investors and supply chains to employees, customers, stakeholders and communities.
Q: What would you like to achieve?
Our goal is to create a global network where companies share expertise, experiences, and lessons learned across a central platform so that their models and initiatives can be replicated to the benefit of all the world’s citizens.
When foundations give grants they create dependency. We want them to think about investment models and real sustainability. The aid agenda has been in place for over fifty years – aid creates dependency, whereas investment ensures independence, since incentives are more aligned. We are committed to supporting the call of Secretary-General BAN Ki-moon to invest in developing countries. His remarks at IV LDC Summit sum it up very well: “Investing in LDCs can provide the stimulus that will help to propel and sustain global economic recovery and stability. This is not charity, it is smart investment.”
The current financial crisis and budget tightening in developed countries provides a rare opportunity for civil society, corporations, foundations, governments, and international organizations to form new alliances and partnerships to promote economic growth and positive social change in developing countries.
The Global Partnerships Forum is essentially an open society for individuals and organizations. We encourage everyone to get involved and work in partnership with others to address the world’s most pressing challenges, as it is clear that the issues facing us today, – from sustainable growth, to the fight against HIV/AIDS, to ensuring access to clean drinking water, – are far too complex for any one sector to confront alone.
We want to engage partners from across sectors, so that together, they form global networks, and drive innovative solutions. Since each sector and organization has its own comparative advantage, it is integral to partner with entities as diverse as the International Chamber of Commerce, a business led umbrella organization, and Synergos, which manages development projects on the ground. Only by harnessing the expertise of business, the capital of philanthropy, the local knowledge of governments and the rigors of the marketplace, can we develop and deliver innovative and system-changing solutions.
Q: What should people do if they want to get in touch with you?
On our website we have a section that tells you how you can participate – “How can I become an expert and join the expert network?” We want people to contribute through that process. We are developing a system where any individual who would like to contribute can sign up. We call it “Personal Social Responsibility” – by engaging everyone, not just governments and organizations, we stand a much better chance of finding real solutions.
Q: You are also the co-founder of the Pearl Initiative? How did you get this idea and what would you like to achieve?
The Pearl Initiative is another very exciting project. It was originally formulated during Dubai’s financial crisis to address the foundational issues of competitive markets, sustainable economic growth, and social development. Badr Jafar, Executive Director of the Crescent Petroleum Group of Companies, and I agreed that the best way to tackle these challenges was to promote a culture of accountability, transparency, and responsibility in the Gulf Region. We wanted the private sector to take the lead and assume ownership for the initiative, so Mr. Jafar suggested engaging CEOs in the Gulf Region. We discussed the idea for the Pearl Initiative with companies across six countries, and were immediately amazed by the response. The Pearl Initiative received requests for involvement from over 100 CEOs and currently works with 22 Private Sector Partners.
The Pearl Initiative launched at the UN on September 20th, 2010, and held its Inaugural Board Meeting at the American University in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates on April 19th, 2011. We look forward to continuing to develop this initiative and positively impacting the business, economic and social environments in the Gulf Region. (See the interview with Badr Jafar.)
We wish Mr. Dossal all the best in these endeavours, and hope that there will be a lot of readers who will be inspired by his and his partners’ actions to continue building a better world for