What comes to mind when you think of senior US corporate officials taking a trip to Africa? Exploitation? A sinister grab for assets or natural resources? Cool behind-the-scenes underhanded deal-making? That's what many would expect, but here in Rwanda last week there was real celebration when members of General Electric's African American Forum Executive Team and Board of Directors visited.
I'm not one to praise a corporation simply on the basis of sending their people on a trip to the continent; everyone in development has seen initiatives that start strong, but which don't go anywhere. However, in the case of GE, I've had the chance to work with their Foundation for nearly three years as they've sent needed equipment; not rusty old machinery, but millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art, appropriate devices to help health centers and hospitals meet the basic needs of their patients. The Foundation works with in-country experts, researching local need while consulting public health leaders, and then delivers training and ongoing maintenance to ensure that their systems continue working. Unlike plenty of donations I've seen over the years here, GE treats its involvement as a long-term investment in the health - and ultimately - prosperity of the people on the continent.
This was the GE delegation's first official visit to Africa. Importantly, the group visited one of the hospitals - Nyamata - where the GE Foundation's donations over the last few years have literally transformed the hospital from a morgue to a place of healing. How is it that GE has it right where so many corporations get it wrong? In part, it's the company's long-term vision. After 100 years of experience on the continent, GE is seeing that good will, when carefully placed and maintained, can result in business. In 2008, GE corporate sold $3.5 billion of equipment in Africa, an increase of 40% over 2007's total. GE, in essence, is seeing that smart investments in desperately needed equipment can result in sales down the road to healthier people and more robust economies.
The GE representatives received plenty of fanfare here on the ground: US Ambassador Stuart Symington hosted them at his home along with Rwandans drawn from the public and private sectors, and President Kagame welcomed them as well. They've taken corporate social responsibility - terminology which has rarely meant much in itself - to where it should be. If they are serious about good business and good corporate citizenship, other corporations' directors should learn from - and ultimately replicate -GE's framework here.