Nhat Vuong Interviews Katherine Marshall on Social Networking and Development

By: Katherine Marshall

November 3, 2012

After meeting at the Aspen Forum 2012 event in Tokyo, Nhat Vuong of i-kifu interviewed Katherine Marshall on November 3, 2012 to discover more about her long career with organizations including the World Bank, the Niwano Peace Prize, the Opus Prize, and World Faiths Development Dialogue and the role of social networking and crowdfunding in development work.
Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Boston (my mother’s home), but my family moved often, in the United States and then to Germany and to Africa. My father was an idealist and a lawyer, convinced that the world should be a better place, and he was part of international support to Africa in the early, heady years right after independence. I went to secondary school in England, then university in the US, but with the taste of an international world very much part of my life and dreams. At present I am formally “retired” from a long career at the World Bank, and am based at Georgetown University, where I teach and do research in an academic framework. I also lead the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a small but ambitious and path-breaking NGO that works to bring the vast worlds of faith much more squarely into development thinking and practice. I also serve on several boards of wonderful organizations. These include the Niwano Peace Prize and the Opus Prize, as well as the World Bank Community Connections Fund.

Tell us what pushed you to pursue your current career.

Though I was committed to working in international development, I had no firm idea when I was a student of how to pursue that path. But after some time consulting for foundations and USAID I landed in the World Bank, working first on urban development, then agriculture. I pursued a 35 year career in the institution, with many years as a director and mentor of young professionals, mostly working on Africa but also Latin America and East Asia.

Then, in a sharp change of course, the President at the time, James D. Wolfensohn, asked me in 1999 to work with him on a new and bold venture, to engage with the worlds of religion on development issues. I have focused ever since on this fascinating and complex challenge, which highlights new, hitherto largely unseen practical and ethical dimensions of development and human rights.

What do you enjoy the most about your current activities?

The hope of contributing new insights about fighting poverty and advancing equity is inspiring. Working with young people is also at the forefront of what I truly enjoy. And I enjoy writing and communicating about what I see as the most important challenges facing our world: ending poverty and making the goals of equity and opportunity something real and tangible.

What are the current challenges that you are facing and how could the people reading this interview help you?

I navigate constantly between very large ideals and challenges, like world inequality, climate change, and the goal of justice and human development, and concrete goals, for example how to chart a path towards decent sanitation for women so they have some security and respect in their lives and how to remove obstacles that keep girls out of school. The inequality of the world and continuing misery and lack of opportunity for so many millions of people is a scandal, because we know better and have demonstrated that current realities can change. I hope, first, that people reading this will want to be part of the great effort to right inequalities and advance a broad notion of human rights, and second that they will appreciate the complexities of the task and be willing to engage in a serious way. That means money but above all caring and attention. In today’s connected world both are possible, and are indeed our responsibility.

How familiar are you with the concept of gamification?

It is not part of my repertoire!

Do you think it could useful to your organization?

A glance suggests many likely applications.

Are you familiar with Corporate Social Responsibility?

Indeed, I have followed and engaged with many dimensions of CSR over the past two decades.

What would be your advice to companies, who struggle to engage their employees to their CSR activities? (Volunteering, donation to NGOs, etc..)

I am aware that CSR will mean different things for different companies. The ideal, and there are inspirational examples, is that a company follows a true triple bottom line path, that involves the pursuit of social, environmental, and financial objectives, in a genuine balance. The wisest company leaders look to their impact on society as well as their shareholders, their lived behavior as well as their and creative products and business methods and ethics. What this translates to in reality varies. For some, financial contributions to worthy efforts are the most practical approach. Encouraging voluntary work by employees in communities is another sensible and feasible path. Encouraging innovation is desirable. Often working to build on business priorities and experience (for example where water is an input focusing on water and sanitation) can lead to exciting initiatives. Making sure that the company furthers basic ethical practices, including respecting human rights and working to fight corruption in all its forms, should be central and transparent.

I see a ladder of possibilities and priorities, that range from the most basic elemental company charity as community responsibility, as a minimalist approach, to an ideal of business leadership in charting new paths at both community and global level. There are rungs in between. But any company that cares only about profits will lose out in the 21st century world.

How do you feel about companies using CSR activities for their marketing?

Some cynical companies sour the reputation of CSR by exhibiting self-interest and over-hyping what they do. That is unfortunate.

Are you using any social networks and why do you think it could be beneficial for corporations to start using them?

Social networks are an exciting new facet of life and I try to understand their potential. They offer a remarkable avenue to live actively in our globalizing world. Corporations do use social networks in fascinating ways, some at the forefront of creativity. I’m a believer and active user.

What do you think about ikifu.org?

Websites and initiatives like ikifu.org offer wonderful potential to engage people in good causes as well as to raise funds for important priorities and projects. It is, however, important that there be a real appreciation of how these sexy projects fit into best practice and national and international priorities. The challenge of strategic coordination is an enormous one, probably the single most demanding for the international development world. We all need to keep that in mind as we pursue our passions and ideas.

If you could use crowdfunding for one of your dreams, what would it be for?

My focus would be on children and my ideal would be to tackle the issues of awful coordination among widely disparate efforts that all aim to advance, from an international perspective, giving children a real chance of better health and education. My particular goal now is to review in depth the extraordinary experience of a host of faith-inspired programs that help the most vulnerable children: orphans, trafficking victims, street children, disabled children, and those who are abused. If we know more about these efforts we can both support them and help them to work far better as partners, of each other and of secular efforts. My organization, WFDD, has a bold program to map the landscape, consult with the actors, and come up with a new framework that can make this happen. My question to you: can crowdfunding help achieve this dream?

We could do so much more as a world community if we could harmonize efforts and instill a deep sense of urgency in the broad and noble but sometimes vague global goals for children’s welfare. That won’t happen if we can’t bridge the gulf between personal desires and funding of good things (for example by charity donations) and the policy and political will that are needed for them to make a real difference. Let’s do it together!

Thank you very much for your time Katherine! To answer your question. I also aim for a world where we shouldn't have to do any crowdfunding to support important causes. Supporting each other to have a better life should be the common thing to do. However I think that such change might take years to happen, so this is my pragmatic answer to such challenges.

This interview originally appeared on the i-kifu blog. I-kifu is a Japanese nonprofit organization that creates social networks for other non-profits to help them manage their relationship with their supporters. Read more about i-kifu's work.