Sometimes I feel like this whole “cross-sector collaboration” stuff is a bunch of crap and going nowhere. Sectors will never truly be able to work together: Nonprofits are just desperate for funding, companies just want to put their name on everything, the government is lost in a sea of politics, and the average person could care less about any of this. We can talk all we want about how important effective cross sector collaboration is, but what’s the point of doing it if all these problems keep coming up?
Well the point is this: when we sector ourselves, gaps form between us. These gaps are then filled by the most disadvantaged among us: People without jobs, people in prisons, people with disabilities, and people with little or no education. When we sector ourselves, we let these people continue to fall deeper and deeper into the gaps we’ve created.
I was reminded of this while traveling in Thailand earlier this month. During a short-term study abroad program through the University of Maryland, a group of 22 students, including myself, traveled to Thailand to study social value creation and corporate responsibility. The trip involved investigating major social and cultural factors in Thailand and studying how these factors contributed to social value creation among NGO’s, companies and social entrepreneurs.
As part of our investigation, my group trekked into the northern hills of Thailand to stay the night in a hilltribe village. The trek was organized and led by the Mirror Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the social development of ethnic minorities in Thailand like the hilltribe we visited. What we saw when we stayed with the hilltribe villagers was a classic result of sectored thinking.
The hilltribe villagers of Northern Thailand are not ethnically Thai. Their grandparents and great-grand parents were refugees fleeing Burma which, at the time, was caught in civil war. They have their own language and their own unique customs and beliefs. Despite the fact that most hilltribe villagers have now been born in Thailand, the government often refuses to grant them citizenship, severely restricting their rights. Because they don’t speak Thai, it’s also hard for them to find work in the nearest city, Chiang Rai. This wasn’t too much of a problem until the government inadvertently cut off a critical source of their livelihood: In an effort to protect Thailand’s rapidly shrinking forests, the government banned cutting down trees. The hilltribe villagers used the wood from these forests to build houses, farm, and perform many of their daily activities. Without it, the hilltribe villagers are more dependent on the Thai economy they cannot enter.
The Mirror Foundation works to address all of these economic, political and social issues, but it is often unfunded and ill equipped to handle them. A truly unsectored approach is necessary to help the hilltribe villages, with individuals and groups from many sectors of Thai society that understand the importance of cross sector collaboration and who are committed to engaging in it. Wider access to sustainable income generation, greater voice in local and national government, better education and stronger commitment to cultural preservation are just a few of the possibilities I think can be achieved through for-profit and government collaboration with current nonprofit efforts.
I certainly didn’t have to travel to the other side of the world to get a reality check on the importance of cross sector collaboration, but seeing the same pitfalls of sectored thinking so far from home resonated with me. Sectored thinking is not a cultural struggle – it’s a human struggle. No matter where we are in the world, we need to avoid our tendency to sector ourselves, put our heads down and grind away. It’s outside of our sectors where our efforts matter most and it is in the gaps between our sectors where our efforts truly make a difference.