I get asked to speak at many different events but yesterday was the first time I had spoken at a United Nations conference. I was at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, speaking in a session on how partnerships involving business, government, and NGOs are working to address difficult issues – in my case living wage for Malawian tea workers.

The conference attracts several thousand participants from around the world. As we queued in the bright Geneva sunshine to get through security into the iconic building, I chatted to Honduran academics, African NGO leaders, and European trade experts, all of whom, in one way or another were here to discuss the role of business in human rights and sustainability, and how to achieve more rapid change on the ground.

It is somewhat alarming that our work was held up as a ‘good practice example’, when the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme (Malawi 2020) is still so new and has so much work ahead of it. But after a morning of rather dry presentations on frameworks and guidance, and theoretical discussions of the different roles of government, business, and NGOs, I can see why there is so much interest in Malawi 2020.

United-Nations-delegatesAs well as the progress that the Malawian tea industry has already made in raising wages, the audience was also impressed with the way the Malawi 2020 programme has managed to bring together the entire value chain and how they have all been involved in making the changes needed to achieve a competitive industry that is paying living wages.While everyone knows that difficult human rights and sustainability issues can only be tackled by collaboration between very different organisations, making this work in practice is very difficult. While it is easy to state ‘all stakeholders have their role to play’, clearly laying out each organisation’s different responsibilities and defining work programmes in order to achieve our joint goals, as we have done in the case of Malawi 2020, is much more unusual – see Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Roadmap.

It was a unique experience and privilege to share a panel with people grappling with huge changes in their country. Also in the session were panellists from Myanmar who were discussing the challenges of setting up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to attract investment and the implications for residents who are being resettled. It was fascinating to hear the perspectives from community members, government, and the Japanese organisation supporting the development of the SEZ. While a very different issue, some of the learnings on how they got everyone who needed to be involved sitting round the table and finding a governance structure and modus operandi that different stakeholders will trust, were similar.Rachel Wilshaw from Oxfam was also on the panel and we did not gloss over the difficulties we have experienced in getting to a working partnership, nor to the challenges ahead. There was interest from the Forum in hearing how the Malawi 2020 Programme progresses and in inviting other participants, such as the Malawian Government and producers, to participate in future events.

Also see: Malawi 2020 Factsheet