Two years ago, one out of every four children born in Cross River State, Nigeria, did not reach the age of five. The cause was not an incurable disease, but instead a health care system ill-equipped to serve the basic needs of Cross River’s mothers and children. What began as a short-term volunteer project has helped to cut the region’s mortality rate nearly in half; a cross sector-partnership between IBM and the Cross River government is saving lives of mothers and children across the state, and providing education and financial assistance to those who need it.

Program Background

The volunteer project that sparked this partnership is IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, a program in which IBM sends select employees into emerging markets on short-term pro bono assignments to build capacity for international NGOs in areas such as IT, finance, marketing, human resources, and project management. In the case of Cross River, the Corporate Service Corps (CSC) teams were asked to assist in carrying out Projects HOPE and Comfort, a state-driven initiative designed to address the crisis.

Health data management was one of many challenges. Local clinics had no electronic database to track patient’s health and medical history. Rural women often sought medical care from roadside chemists and local birthing attendants—people they trusted but who were untrained in pre-natal and pediatric care. The CSC teams’ recommendations for addressing this problem included digital technology to monitor health trends and capture patients’ medical status, a communications plan to engender trust among a population unaccustomed to government support, and a change-management strategy designed to inspire both employees and community members to participate in the program.

Upon hearing the recommendations, Cross River’s Governor Liyel Imoke recognized the value of corporate expertise. Projects HOPE and Comfort have since evolved into a business partnership between IBM and Cross River State, grounded in the common goal of saving lives. IBM provides counsel on a biometric identification system that registers program participants, while giving hospitals and doctors the intelligence to make life-saving decisions. Solar panels have been installed in free health clinics that experience frequent power outages, and Projects HOPE and Comfort are on track to increase school attendance by 80% and reduce infant and mother mortality rate 50% by this year’s end.

Why Did This Cross-Sector Partnership Work?

I ask myself what is needed for government and business to innovate together to solve social challenges every day. In environments as diverse as Ghana, India, and the Philippines, my organization, CDC Development Solutions, works with corporations and their employee-volunteers to spur local social and economic development.

Several factors help explain the success of the IBM-Cross River State partnership:

1. Private sector support. The short-term Corporate Service Corps projects were a fertile learning ground that provided IBM with an understanding of Cross River’s cultural dynamics, while relationships with local communities and government organically developed. IBM’s senior leadership team well understands the value of this type of relationship. When C-Suite leaders understand the business value that accompanies a social contribution, this helps them to view it with a different lens and support the project.

2. Government committed to transparency. Cross River State’s Governor Imoke was a fervent supporter of the partnership. He demonstrated political will that went a long way in engendering the trust and cooperation of those beneath him, as well as transparency at all levels. 

3. Coordination and connection. When two parties with different languages and processes collaborate, the need for an intermediary cannot be underestimated. Working with a third party resource brings an on-the-ground network that fosters trust, while saving both parties a valuable resource: time. It also leads to results that can scale quickly, as we see in the case of Cross River.

4. Skills-based support. The engagements utilized the professional skills of employee volunteers from all over the world, bringing together a diversity of skills and perspectives. The projects were ones that required strategic thinking, not brute physical force. The team members were able to successfully apply their expertise to the tasks at hand.

In a world of increasing globalization, there is a need for best practices to guide partnership between government and business. International corporate volunteer programs offer an initial lens into principles that can guide these partnerships.