At an event hosted by Synergos, an organization that helps leaders and partnerships change the systems that keep people in poverty, I spoke with a friend who is a senior executive at IBM. We discussed that businesses, particularly multi-nationals, need to understand that their greatest asset is their relationships with leaders from all sectors – including civil society activists – in the communities in which they provide goods or services. All too often, they simply think of their corporate citizenship – if they think of it at all – in the narrowest sense possible: a kind of side-bar philanthropy. Instead, they should be looking to create and sustain deep relationships with these advocates for social justice as key to their sustainable business model. Doing good will, in fact, be good for their business as they’ll have a healthy, well-educated, financially capable customer base and work force. We agreed that we needed to find a way to convey this need that most corporations don’t yet understand they have.
Frank Rich’s op-ed “The Rabbit Ragu Democrats” in the New York Times underscores how the main relationships businesses currently cultivate are with lobbyists who can press their pet concerns with government officials. His article is a cautionary tale of the adverse affects these highly lucrative relationships have, not only on the citizens who take a hit from policies that are against their best interests, but also, ultimately, on the very business leaders who pursued them. I just saw Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story which describes the phenomenal disparities of well-being among Americans and their access to the powers that affect their status. I have encouraged many to see the film. I explain that, even if they don’t agree with all of Moore’s conclusions, he exposes fundamental conditions about which we should engage in a vibrant discussion. Leaders from business, government and communities, along with the ordinary citizens who make the respective endeavors of these leaders possible, need to make a frank assessment of what will benefit all of us. The financial collapse and climate change are just two of the myriad inter-related global crises revealing that we sink or swim together.
I re-read Eric Klinenberg’s 2004 review “To Have and Have Not” in the Washington Post of Michael Marmot’s book, The Status Syndrome that addresses many of the issues highlighted in Moore’s film. Klinenberg writes, “Extreme status disparities and social segregation at the national level undermine public health, whereas relative equality, social cohesion and strong public education systems promote collective well-being.” Marmot’s opening chapter “Some Are More Equal than Others” starts with a quote by W. Somerset Maugham: “Of all the hokum with which this country [America] is riddled the most odd is the common notion that it is free of class distinctions.” When the majority globally, and even many in our rich nation, are lacking the most basic needs, we all pay the price. To grasp that extreme disparity adversely affects all of us, not just those who have the least, is not rocket science. As has happened historically – the Roman Empire, Louis XIV France – the many without anything seeing the few with so much can rise up in anger and bring down seemingly rock-solid societies.
We see this happening at one end of the spectrum already: I was in DC at the same time when the “birthers,” “tenthers,” and “tea-partiers” were there. While I disagree with what they stand for and am particularly alarmed by the vitriol with which they convey their beliefs, I am proud to live in a country where everyone has the freedom to express their opinion. I also understand that part of their anger is fueled by them not seeing the tangible benefits in their own lives of political policies. As someone who has spent four decades working to create positive, sustainable, profitable change, I hope that those who fall more at my end of the political spectrum will exercise their right to promote social justice. I don’t believe this is just a “liberal feel-good” aspiration, but instead a basic necessity for everyone’s survival: those engaged in commerce and political leadership need it as much as those who really are feeling the pinch. Depriving many so that a few can benefit is never sustainable.