Insights

Each of the insight pieces below first appeared as a short reflection written by Peter Heslam, the director of Transforming Business. They were published by LICC to large online and radio audience and are reproduced here by kind permission.

Feel free to respond to any of them directly to Peter - his contact details are here and he'd be glad to hear from you.

The thought pattern behind each of these reflections is based on a fivefold objective: inquire - inform - innovate - inspire - impact.

You can receive Peter's occasional reflections automatically soon after they appear by signing up under 'Staying Informed' on the homepage here. These insight pieces are occasional - you will not be inundated. Feel free to forward them to anyone you think may be interested.

Read and enjoy!


September 7, 2016

Business with a Human Face

British high streets and out-of-town shopping centres have reached the end of an era. All 164 stores of the retail giant BHS, founded in 1928 by US entrepreneurs, have closed their doors for the last time, leaving around 11,000 employees facing an uncertain future. Two official reports lay the blame squarely at the feet of the business' former owner, Sir Philip Green, the most recent of which labels him 'the unacceptable face of capitalism'.

Such a stinging indictment raises a question: what is capitalism's acceptable face? Ever since Karl Marx made 'capital' central to his economic critique, many have argued that there is nothing acceptable about capitalism because it is a system based on exploitation and avarice. For them, business leaders like Sir Philip represent not the unacceptable face but the true face of capitalism.

Some of those who argue that capitalism is based on greed embrace capitalism for this very reason. They find inspiration for their 'greed is good' hypothesis in the figure of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, and in the writings both of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and of the Russian-born philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Her belief that capitalism is based on radical individualism fuelled her endorsement of it, as reflected in the title of her book The Virtue of Selfishness. As with Smith, Rand is a complex and ambiguous thinker. Yet her aversion to the misery-inducing collectivism of her mother country drove her to portray and embrace a Gekko-like caricature of capitalism.

Rejecting both these extremes, many thought-leaders now avoid the term 'capitalism' altogether, despite the language used in the second BHS report. Others have sought to moderate the term by juxtaposing adjectives like 'compassionate', 'conscious', 'responsible', 'enlightened', 'social' or 'sustainable' before the word 'capitalism'. While all these composite 'isms' have deficiencies, they ought not to be dismissed as self-contradictory.

Each of them mirror the fact that exchanges of economic value take place in a relational context and depend on a moral code. That is why, when business leaders enrich themselves at the expense of those who are vital in the creation of that wealth, trust and profits eventually plunge. The public shaming of such individuals, when justified, suggests that the dignity of the human person is crucial to acceptable economic behaviour – to business with a human face.

Peter Heslam

the unacceptable face of capitalism

economic exchange is relational and moral

 

 

 

January 23, 2015

Davos Man

High up in the Swiss Alps close to the Austrian border lies the picturesque but remote ski resort of Davos. This is where, every January, a large gathering of the world's richest and most influential people meet for the World Economic Forum (WEF). It's a summit, as its strapline puts it, that's 'committed to improving the state of the world'.

In defiance of this strapline, protests, campaigns, demonstrations and populist opprobrium surround the event, emanating from an impressive array of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The result, in some quarters, is that 'Davos' ranks as a four-letter word. Similarly, 'Davos Man' has become an epithet for greedy, narcissistic individuals who control the global capitalist machine for their own selfish ends.

While some evidence may support this characterisation, the true picture is fuller. Many NGO leaders no longer stand outside the venue's ring of steel. They are now on the conference podium. One of them, Winnie Byanyima, is even co-chairing the Forum. She is the CEO of Oxfam, an NGO promoting the message, however contentious, that global inequality is growing and the world's wealthiest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world's population.

But it's not only Winnie Byanyima who fails to fit the Davos Man stereotype. So too does the original Davos Man, the German-born business leader turned academic Professor Klaus Schwab, the Forum's founder and Executive Chairman. Public discourse owes to him such breakthrough concepts as the multi-stakeholder approach, public-private partnerships, social entrepreneurship, and corporate global citizenship.

Schwab's thought leadership is matched by his civil society activism, as founder not only of the WEF but also of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the Forum of Young Global Leaders, and the Global Shapers Community. To impartial observers, the plethora of honorary doctorates he's received is well deserved yet leave his humility intact. To them it is no wonder that other true Davos Men are drawn to his gatherings. One of them is Bill Gates, who having put a computer in so many of the world's homes now seeks to rid them of infectious disease.

Davos Man is a straw man. Real Davos Men are ordinary women and men who have the audacity to challenge rigid demarcations of what is of private and public concern. Inspired by a vision that transcends such barriers, they fight to align interests for the sake of the common good. Whether or not on icy Alpine slopes, that is a fray worth joining.

Peter Heslam

former outsiders now stand on the podium

aligning interests for the common good

 

 

 

November 20, 2014

The Market for Virtue

Banking scandals were once rare events confined to shady back street dealers. Now they are frequent affairs involving main street brands. US and UK regulators have just imposed a $4.3bn fine on six such banks for manipulating foreign exchange rates. This follows in the long wake of scandals associated with sub–prime lending, the manipulation of Libor, money laundering, and the mis-selling of endowment schemes and forms of protection against credit card fraud.

It all confirms the suspicion of many that business and commerce – the market itself – is unable to act as a moral agent in society because it is inevitably indifferent or hostile to virtue. Opinion formers often appear to agree that the market appeals to such low motives, like greed and selfishness, that it cannot but dissolve the moral fabric of society. It is, therefore, the duty of the state to impose ethical behaviour on business, by means of regulation.

The state does indeed have a regulatory role – libertarianism is only alive in textbooks. As the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes is famous for having argued, the invisible hand of the market needs assistance from the visible hand of the state. The state must, for instance, try to prevent certain markets emerging (such as those in dangerous drugs, prostitution and slavery), and to keep business away from those areas of human life in which it has neither legitimate role nor competence. Regulation is necessary for human beings to be able to exercise freedom, including the freedom the market brings.

But as the rafts of regulation imposed in recent years begin to prove ineffective, we are faced with a dilemma. The more regulation is imposed, the more mistrust grows; yet the greater the mistrust, the more regulation is imposed. While based on sound research, this is no academic dilemma. It reflects a moral crisis stemming from our loss of confidence in articulating and affirming what is good in people and in the institutions they create.

To resolve this crisis, a renewal is needed of virtue, rather than of compliance, as the modus operandi of society. This is to encompass the social sphere most widely associated with vice – business. If we deny business' positive role in nurturing character and moral cultures, we will continue to find it lives up to its reputation. Many companies are leading this renewal, far exceeding the requirements of regulations. It is time to shine a light on them, appreciate them, support them, learn from them, and celebrate them.

Peter Heslam

confidence in goodness has been lost

good business needs to be celebrated

 

 

 

March 10, 2014

Lego Story

Three out of every four of our homes have them. Some are concealed in sofas and vacuum cleaners. Others are hidden in carpets, only to be discovered – painfully – by bare-footed parents. Most of them are in the crisp innocent colours of the Dutch painter Mondrian. All of them fit together with a uniquely satisfying feel and sound.

They are, of course, Lego bricks. If your box of them is buried beneath a pile of white elephants for the garage sale, similar blocks can be viewed in awesome constructions, and destructions, at a cinema near you. The Lego Movie is, in more ways than one, a block-buster.

But where does Lego come from? It emerged from the skilled hands and sharp mind of a Danish carpenter-entrepreneur, Ole Kirk Christiansen, who had a love for children and believed in the value of play. He began in 1932 making and selling wooden ducks but turned his tools to wooden bricks when he decided that the best kind of toys are those that can be built, and then rebuilt. Stimulating creativity and imagination, they help develop character.

Ole encapsulated this philosophy in the name of his new company – 'Lego' – which is a fusion of leg godt, meaning 'play well' in Danish, and 'I study' or 'I put together' in Latin. But it took an incident with his son for him to decide on the company's motto.

One day, Ole's son and employee Godtfred proudly announced he had cut costs by dispatching a consignment of wooden toys he had painted with only two coats of varnish, rather than three. Far from pleased, his father sent him to the train station to retrieve the toys and finish the job.

The motto that now formed in Ole's mind was vigorously embraced by Godtfred when he inherited the company's helm, and it is still used as the Lego Group's slogan: 'only the best is good enough'. This idea inspired Ole's passionate belief that Lego was more than a toy, but a creative and integrated system. Each new set of bricks fitting the old, children found their imaginations fired by unlimited creativity. This is the creativity that animates the film and inspires the growing millions of child devotees and AFOLs – adult fans of Lego. Bearing the hallmark of a master builder, it stimulates what can best be described as godly play

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

toys that stimulate creativity and imagination help develop character

only the best is good enough

 

 

 

March 22, 2013

Champion of the Poor

Two global Christian communities – Anglicans and Catholics – are welcoming new leaders. What Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis have in common, besides the timing of their inaugurations, is that both are assuming the leadership of churches that are disproportionately located in poorer parts of the world.

But how can they lead their churches to become churches for the poor? One way will be a refusal to focus on internal management issues at the expense of mission – the social and spiritual outreach of churches into their communities and of Christians in their daily work that is grounded in God's love for all that God has made.

For inspiration, Pope Francis can look to Francis of Assisi, from whom he takes his name; and to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of his Jesuit order. Both forsook internal controversies to focus unrelentingly on mission. For Francis, this even meant expressing God's love towards wild and dangerous animals. Archbishop Justin may find inspiration in someone equally familiar with such animals, whose image became almost an icon for mission: the medic and explorer David Livingstone, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this week.

Livingstone's passion for the poor drove his vision for 'commerce and Christianity'. This combination, he felt, would help secure human flourishing in what was widely regarded as a 'Dark Continent' fit only for exploitation. He argued that legitimate trade, founded on biblical principles of integrity, dignity and respect, provided a viable alternative to the slave trade. Indeed, his risky and strenuous expeditions can only be understood with the abolitionist underpinning of his 'commerce and Christianity' vision in mind; navigating rivers was a means to open up landlocked Africa to the kind of trade that would, quite literally, redeem.

While conclaves deliberate over Livingstone's legacy, Pope Francis emerges from the white smoke with a solid reputation for being a champion of the poor. But for him, as for Archbishop Justin, that title ultimately belongs to someone who began his ministry by declaring God's good news for the poor, and embodied that news in his life, death, and resurrection. Whatever their inspirational value, all other champions of the poor fail. This leaves the poor to say, in words from a globally-used liturgy, 'there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.' May the churches' new leaders help more of the world's people to find themselves on the winning side.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

st francis expressed God's love towards wild & dangerous animals
david livingstone proposed 'commerce and Christianity' as an alternative to the slave trade

July 26, 2012

Barclay’s Apology

How the mighty have fallen. Three Barclay bosses resign after the bank is found to have rigged one of the most crucial interest rates in global finance.

The fury unleashed reached fever pitch when Bob Diamond, the bank's newly-resigned CEO, was questioned by parliamentarians about his role in the scandal. Diamond offered an apology but the decibels dipped only when John Mann MP asked: 'I…wonder, Mr Diamond, if you could remind me of the three founding principles of the Quakers who set up Barclays?'. 'I can't, sir', spluttered the abashed Diamond. 'Honesty, integrity and plain dealing', the MP snapped back.

Despite his acrimony, Mann was right. While the trinity of virtues he cited may have failed to feature in Barclays' apology, it does feature in Barclay's Apology – a book first published in English in 1678 by the Scottish Quaker Robert Barclay. The full title was An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, and it had a formative influence on the development of business ethics in the global economy.

So too some documents known as the Westminster Standards, that were disseminated widely following an assembly involving around 120 theologians held at Westminster Abbey in London from 1643 to 1649. They had a profound influence amongst Protestants, including entrepreneurs seeking brighter futures in the New World.

All that is history. But Mann's interrogation of Diamond raises the question how such seemingly outdated documents may be relevant to today's global economy. Exactly this question is being addressed by an initiative involving a growing international circle of scholars and business leaders. They take an even older standard – the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue – and ask what light is thrown on them by the Westminster divines that can help reform business and banking today.

They must be on to something. For had the dealers in Barclays observed the Decalogue's prohibition against lying and stealing, rate rigging would have been avoided. As it is, the bank has incurred a hefty fine, a loss of trust, a leadership vacuum, and the prospect of criminal prosecution.

Against this background, the legacy of the Quaker and Westminster Protestants testifies to the importance not only of regulation but of conscience in ensuring equitable trade; and to the fact that the dictates of conscience are not as inimical to business as is often assumed. Barclay's Apology, had it been heeded, would have prevented the misdeeds behind Barclays' apology.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

the Quaker principles of honesty, integrity & plain dealing
conscience is not inimical to business

May 1, 2012

Liberating Generosity

The storm over the tax benefits of making charitable donations brings into sharp focus the question of generosity – are donations generous only to the extent to which donors derive no material benefit for themselves?

Generosity may always be difficult to talk about, but periods of economic recession make it especially challenging. Yet this is precisely when the needs of the needy are most acute. It is of some encouragement, therefore, that although overall giving declines in recessions, giving from people of faith increases.

Recent research also reveals that the giving of money and time (volunteering) by religious people is disproportionately high, not only to religious charities but to non-religious ones. Should, therefore, the mounting anti-religious movement succeed, the charity sector would implode.

The fact that this movement shows no sign of success globally provides no room for complacency. While the giving level of the 'faithful' is relatively high, its average is below the tenth prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures. And the fact that giving is inversely related to income – the poor give proportionately more than the rich – means there is vast disposable income amongst the devout that is withheld from charitable causes.

Although fundraising is becoming increasingly professionalized, there are no clever formulas that can liberate this wealth. Giving is not about equations and intensives. Nor is it about being confronted with need, as the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke's Gospel illustrates. It is ultimately – as demonstrated in Luke's contrasting accounts of the encounters of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus with Jesus – about a spontaneous response to the grace of a lavishly generous God.

In Cape Town in 2010, this response inspired the launch of a campaign to encourage a global culture of Christian generosity. The Global Generosity Network is now establishing resources and local networks, helped by leading entrepreneurs.

Such entrepreneurs understand that wealth distribution relies on wealth creation – their business thinking and practical skills generates wealth for the common good. But they want to engage their hearts, not just their head and hands. They therefore not only invest in, but give to, social causes, motivated by encounters with a self-giving God who demands no return.

Their example demonstrates that thrift and generosity go together. It also shows that liberating generosity is not only about liberating funds, nor even about liberating others, but about our own liberation. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

wealth distribution relies on wealth creation
generosity liberates the giver

October 18, 2011

Steve Jobs – iVisionary

Since his untimely death, so many tributes to the co-founder of Apple have poured in from across the world that the internet has buckled under the weight of the words 'Steve Jobs'. It is a measure of the depth and breadth of his impact.

One thing in particular accounts for that impact: Jobs' foresight and vision in anticipating, and seeking to fulfil, people's needs and desires. This was not the result of the superior market research and technology consultancy; he disdained such services because he sought to generate new markets and products: 'You've got to start with the customer experience and work back to the technology, not the other way around'.

This reverse progression is made difficult by the fact that most potential customers find it hard to articulate their needs and desires - either because they cannot imagine solutions or because they are looking for them in the wrong place. The generation that initially dismissed personal computers, mobile phones and emails as unnecessary is now the generation that cannot live without them. As Henry Ford is attributed with saying: 'If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would've said "a faster horse"'. Steve Jobs, arguably Ford's successor as the world's greatest entrepreneur, put it even more succinctly: 'A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them'. He used ice hockey to make his point: 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.'

Jobs was no saint. His employees often found him arrogant, impolite and mercurial. Following complaints about his 'Management by Frightening' technique, he was ousted from the leadership of his company, only to return years later. He has also been criticised for bequeathing products to the world that encourage individualism, hedonism and social disintegration.

But the art of anticipating people's wants and needs before they know they have them, or whilst they are looking in the wrong place to satisfy them, belongs to the role of the seer. It is reflected in the lives of the great prophets, pastors, leaders and teachers of history. They are revered as visionaries because they saw people's needs and desires with greater clarity than did the people themselves and re-directed their search for gratification. All who seek to follow such leaders in the arena of ultimate needs and desires can find inspiration in Jobs' understanding of the human psyche.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

Steve Jobs follows Henry Ford as one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs
anticipating people's wants and needs belongs to the role of the seer

June 10, 2011

People, Principles and Profits

Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the biggest cause of death in children worldwide. The recent decision of the leading pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), to radically reduce the cost of vaccinations against these diseases in low-income countries is welcome to all fair-minded people. The same is true of the company's commitment to ensuring that the world's first malaria vaccine, which GSK is close to creating, will be sold in such countries for little more than the cost price.

The company's rationale for taking these decisions, as articulated in a recent article in The Times by its CEO Andrew Witty, is worthy of consideration. Witty admits to having a vested interest in immunisation because of the profit it delivers. But profit, he points out, is important for three reasons: it makes a healthy return to the company's shareholders; delivers sustainable financial growth to invest in research into new drugs and vaccines; and provides jobs for workers. To make and sustain such profits, Witty contends, the company's operations need to be 'in step with society and its expectations'.

Two aspects of this are particularly striking. First is the emphasis on achieving a 'healthy' return and 'sustainable' financial growth. It stands in stark contrast to the 'maximization' of returns and growth that is often taken to be the purpose of business, by business proponents and detractors alike.

Second is the emphasis on the generation of profits, jobs, and beneficial products; and on the need to win trust. These things are so fundamental to the role of business in society that they only need spelling out in a culture that, while deeply consumerist, is also deeply cynical and suspicious towards business. For they have always been indispensible to all viable companies.

They thereby act as a reminder that we live in a moral universe in which all spheres of society – including business – are called to serve the common good. Because of this, no commercial enterprise can expect to be unaffected in the long-term by its lack of ethical integrity – a lesson some banks have recently discovered to their cost. Amongst those things that are required, as much of companies as of any other social sphere, are three basics highlighted by an ancient Hebrew prophet: justice, kindness and humility (Micah 6.8). With their appeal to moral imagination, these timeless principles stand ready for adoption by all entrepreneurial companies, not only those in whose hands lies the fate of millions of children.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

business thrives on the trust and expectations of society
our culture is consumerist but deeply hostile to business

January 7, 2011

Happiness in Practical Wisdom

'Happy New Year!' The use of this phrase at the start of a new year reflects a secret about human beings – we crave happiness. However divergent our aims, the pursuit of happiness is common to us all.

This year, our pursuit of that goal takes place during commemorations across the English-speaking world to mark the fourth centennial of the King James Bible. The impact of that translation on the culture, language and beliefs of the Anglophone world is of such magnitude that the celebrations extend far beyond the religious sphere. They are a reminder that the Bible is today, as over the past 400 years, the world's best-selling book.

So does the world's most popular book have anything to say about the world's most popular pursuit? Indeed it does, but the Bible's insights on happiness call for a revision of today's standard version, which is deeply hedonistic. One such insight is that true happiness comes not through material prosperity, power or pleasure but from the practice of wisdom. Words from the King James translation set the tone: 'Happy is the man that findeth wisdom…for the merchandise of it is better than silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold' (Proverbs 3.13-14).

A master of 'merchandise' who grasped some of this is John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963), the founder of the John Lewis Partnership who has been polled Britain's greatest business leader. Although not outwardly religious, his admiration for Quakers influenced his decision to relinquish his claim to an income greater than that of his entire workforce and to introduce a profit-sharing scheme allowing employees to become partners.

Without external shareholders, this 'experiment in industrial democracy', as Lewis called it, now has 70,000 partners owning almost 300 stores. They subscribe to a constitution embodying his vision that 'the Partnership's ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members'. Such happiness, Lewis explained, is to be understood 'in the broadest sense of that word' and requires 'a sense of all-round fairness, a sense of all-pervading justice'.

Politicians from left and right are proposing the John Lewis Partnership as a model for public service provision. They are also emphasising the importance of happiness. Although unable to offer detailed policy prescriptions, the practical wisdom of scripture, not lost in translation, offers direction. The bible resembles a compass, rather than roadmap. But on a journey through uncharted territory, that is exactly what you need.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

the exercise of practical wisdom is a source of true happiness
John Spedan Lewis shunned lavish income and introduced a profit-sharing scheme turning employees into partners

December 7, 2010

The Genius of Savings Banks

'Tis the season to be jolly. Or is it? According to the debt counselling agency, Christians Against Poverty (CAP), 91% of UK residents are worried about the cost of Christmas. But CAP also reports that almost 1500 of its clients are looking forward to the festivities because they can fund them from their savings, CAP having operated as a savings bank.

The term 'savings bank' conjures up antiquated images of piggy banks and National Savings Certificates. But globally the rapid rise of microfinance, which relies on savings habits, is a development success story. And in many low-income countries, the chief lenders to small- and medium-sized enterprises are members of the World Savings Bank Institute (WSBI).

At a summit held earlier this year to celebrate the bicentenary of the global savings bank movement, senior banking figures, including representatives of the WSBI, paid respect to the person they revere as the movement's founder: Henry Duncan (1774-1846), a church minister in a remote Scottish village.

On arriving in Ruthwell parish, Duncan was so shocked by the poverty he encountered that he imported Indian corn to sell at cost price. But realising this was only a temporary solution, he added 'social entrepreneurship' to his pastoral duties, convinced that the poor are best served when they are helped to help themselves. He created jobs for women by importing flax for spinning and weaving. And in 1810, in a tiny cottage, he founded of a savings bank.

The scheme caught on in other villages as Duncan, who was gaining a reputation as a creative genius, used a newspaper he had founded to promote it. Spreading rapidly throughout the UK and beyond, it triggered a locally-based financial revolution. Its impact is reflected in the name of the Grameen Bank, the world's largest microfinance institution, which was launched in Bangladesh by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus: Grameen means 'village'.

In the wake of a financial crisis caused, in part, by the rich encouraging the poor to borrow beyond their means, Duncan's vision has renewed appeal. In his discovery that the most effective way to tackle poverty is from the bottom up, using a local, relational, people-orientated strategy, lies the genius of savings banks. Perhaps his scheme can suggest alternative banking and development models for our time. If so, they will eventually do much more than put the sparkle back into Christmas.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

savings banks lend to small businesses and drive human development
the Scottish pastor Henry Duncan is revered as the founder of savings banks

October 8, 2010

Eradicating Poverty

The eradication of poverty. That was the vision of the United Nations at the turn of the millennium. As if that wasn't ambitious enough, it added seven more development objectives, ranging from universal primary education to environmental sustainability. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be achieved by 2015, were subsequently adopted by all 192 member countries.

With only five years left to go, are we on course to achieve them? The UN recently held a summit to address this question. Delegates took stock of the devastating impact of the global economic crisis, while cautiously noting areas of progress. The one goal about which they were overwhelmingly optimistic was the first one – to halve by 2015 the proportion of people who in 1990 had an income of less than $1 per day.

Good news like this can prompt odes to the effectiveness of international aid. But we need to note the key reason this target may be met: the economic growth of China and India. When such growth is looked at from the bottom up, the real change makers in overcoming poverty turn out to be commercial entrepreneurs, even though the infrastructural improvements of aid programmes can be crucial to their success.

This Sunday the date is 10-10-10. Development organizations around the world are marking the day by stepping up their advocacy for greater economic justice. Spearheading the campaign is a global coalition of activists called Micah Challenge, which is mobilizing millions of people around the world to take action to help the poor.

The key action Micah Challenge is calling for on Sunday is prayer. But surely that’s no strategy for change, as its effectiveness can’t be measured! True enough, but today’s generation of believers has prayed against fierce injustices that have eventually crumbled before their eyes, the tyrannies of fascism, communism and apartheid included. No causal link can ever be proven, of course, and historians are right to document the range of observable factors involved.

Likewise, many agents will be involved in eliminating poverty. But it is time to acknowledge the leading role that will be played by those most often overlooked - the world’s entrepreneurs. Without them, there are few prospects for a life of dignity for the millions trapped in poverty. Even if we regard their release more as a matter of aid, rather than of enterprise, there is no aid without the wealth creators. Perhaps they deserve a mention in prayers for the poor.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

the rise of China and India could mean the halving of absolute poverty
entrepreneurs will play a leading role in releasing the poverty trap

April 30, 2010

Democracy is changing

If it is true that the motto of a traditionalist is 'some change is good but no change is even better', there are few traditionalists in the UK at the moment. While the desire for change in the run up to the general election may not be as palpable as it was before the US presidential election in 2008, it is rising sharply.

But is pinning such hope on politics justified? Until recently, this question was anathema to politicians, many of whom felt that an air of self-importance was crucial to winning the confidence of voters.

Things are different now. The economic crisis, which has left gaping holes in public finances, huge budget deficits and rapidly escalating national debts, has had a sobering effect on western politicians. It has driven a consensus amongst many of them, including Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in the UK, that a top priority is the reduction of the structural deficit and that cuts in government spending is the best way to achieve this.

As a result of all this, voluntary associations, charities, NGOs, businesses and faith communities are set to become the true agents of change in western societies, rather than professional politicians.

Faith groups in particular are aware of the coming shift. Recent statements by Faithworks, and by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, make it clear that voters should not to be seduced into thinking that Government is a social cure-all.

Judging by their recent interviews and speeches, it won't be politicians that turn out to be the seducers. All three candidates to become British Prime Minister are repeating the message that real change needs to come from the bottom up, where in communities across the country it is voluntary associations, driven by a sense of purpose, that see lives transformed.

But resisting a seduction is not the same as exercising mistrust. Indeed, representative democracy, however inadequate, is something that should inspire our trust. Viewed historically and globally, it is a rare achievement, made possible only through the struggle of previous generations. And it embodies many of the same ideals that are prized by voluntary organizations, such as liberty, justice and responsibility, all of which are central to scriptural traditions.

At a time when most of the world's poor live under regimes in which the abrogation of these principles is flaunted, this is not the time to lose faith in democracy. But it is time to do democracy differently.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

voluntary private associations are set to become the true agents of social change
representative democracy
is a rare achievement, embodying liberty, justice and responsibility

October 5, 2009

The MBA Oath

As the new academic year gets underway at universities and colleges, what are the prospects for students heading for a career in business? The proverbial 'milk round', when big companies visit universities to recruit the most promising finalists, is in as steep decline as perceptions of the integrity of business. In the UK, trust in business leaders has slumped to just above that of trust in politicians at only six per cent of the population.

But towards the end of last term at Harvard, in the world's most renowned business school, some students began to address this mistrust head on. With help from two professors, they created an MBA oath that committed swearers to eight pledges, such as shunning decisions that 'advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the people it serves'.

On circulating the oath, the students hoped 100 fellow MBA finalists would sign it. To their surprise, more than half of them did (over 400). Since then, requests to use the oath have poured in from scores of business schools worldwide and the number of signatories has grown exponentially. As the leader of the initiative, Max Anderson, a former theology student, put it: 'Our inbox just exploded'.

Not all responses have been so enthusiastic. Some have dismissed it as naïve idealism that will dissipate as soon as the oath-takers are confronted with the fiduciary duty of managers to maximize profits for shareholders. Whatever the truth of such criticism, the oath represents an attempt to elevate business to the status of a profession and there are good reasons why this ought to be welcomed.

First among these is the notion of calling. In the monastic communities that birthed the universities, the divine call (vocatio) required a human response (professio) that went beyond a profession of faith to include a commitment to excellence in areas of study that would serve humanity. Thus emerged the non-clerical 'professions', such as law and medicine, each with norms focused on service. Ironically, however, the one area of expertise on which all the others relied – wealth creation – failed to be regarded as a proper calling.

In popular perceptions ever since, business has languished as a sphere for amateurs in which service of self, rather than of others, is the ruling norm. While this is reflected in the use made of MBA graduates as scapegoats for the economic crisis, it is heartening that some of them are keen to embrace business as a professional vocation, with all its ethical implications.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  some have dismissed it as naïve idealism that will soon dissipate
some MBA graduates are keen to embrace business as a profession, with all its ethical implications

June 16, 2009

How I Caused the Credit Crunch

It was me. That's what a bright, young, Eton- and Oxford-educated former banker called Tetsuya Ishikawa, who spent seven years at the forefront of the credit markets, admits about himself. During a banking career within some of the world's major banks, he structured and sold subprime securities to global investors. Now he confesses all in the form of a novel that is taking the bestseller lists by storm.

The title of his book, How I Caused the Credit Crunch, is as intriguing as its contents. Too often during the current financial crisis the emphasis has been on technical problems of risk management, and on what technical fixes now need to be imposed. Ishikawa's book provides, in contrast, a vivid reminder that financial markets are not the workings of cold mechanical forces, but of warm flesh and blood. Reflecting human choices, they have innate moral dimensions.

What is true of financial markets holds true for the rest of the economy. The attempt to understand and to operate in markets through the suspension of moral judgement forces economics and business into a moral vacuum that eventually suffocates them. Because they are essentially about relationships, markets require sound morals to survive. The credit crunch is as much a wake up call to the destructiveness that can occur when morals go wrong as 9/11 was to the destructiveness that can occur when religion goes wrong.

But attempts to use bad morals as an excuse to eliminate moral responsibility from markets – whether through the imposition of secular worldviews or of mechanical fixes - will be as misguided and counterproductive as the attempt to use examples of bad religion as an excuse to banish religion from public. For most people in the world, religion is the magnetic field in which they set their moral compass. It is the context in which they perceive and pursue visions of the common good, stimulated by the sense of personal moral responsibility that religion tends to engender.

This is what inspired Mel Gibson to ask the camera crew of his blockbuster The Passion to film his hand as that of the centurion holding the nails that were driven through Jesus' wrists. Gibson's act reflects a mindset Ishikawa's book can help stimulate. For while his spotlight is on bankers, Ishikawa insists that ‘we are all responsible in our small way' and that ‘the arrogance of the [banking] industry has gone out. There is a greater sense of humility'. Were we all to embrace such humility, the green shoots of recovery would be sooner to appear.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  markets are about relationships and have innate moral dimensions
humility will encourage the green shoots of recovery

March 31, 2009

From eBay to Social Entrepreneurship

When Jeff Skoll became the first full-time employee and president of eBay, he had two failed businesses behind him. But he wrote a business plan that led this start-up company to legendary success. It was so successful, in fact, that when he cashed out a portion of the company, he joined the ranks of the world's billionaires.

He could be spending the rest of his life on golf courses, private jets and luxury yachts. Instead, he has founded Participant Media, a company that has funded Oscar-winning feature films and documentaries that promote social values; and the Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which is behind the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

This week, the Skoll Centre has been hosting its annual Skoll World Forum for around 800 of the world's leading social entrepreneurs from 65 countries. Prominent figures from the public, academic, finance, corporate and policy sectors have engaged with them in debates, discussions and workshops focused on accelerating, innovating and scaling market-based solutions to some of the world's most pressing social issues.

The climax of the 3-day Forum is the giving of the Skoll Foundation Awards. This year's recipients included a young woman called Soraya Salti. She left a job in business consultancy to join INJAZ al-Arab, the only education programme in the Arab world that helps students learn entrepreneurship and life skills as part of their school education.

Another awardee, Gary White, is the founder of WaterPartners International. Over twenty years ago in Guatemala, he watched a young girl carry contaminated water back to her shack alongside a stream of open sewage. At that moment he decided to dedicate his life to helping poor people gain access to safe drinking water but in a way that was commercially viable.

Similar stories of vision, passion, risk and adventure have poured forth, not only from the podium but in hundreds of hushed but animated twilight conversations in darkened streets and college precincts. It is as if the dreaming spires above have born silent testimony to the enduring values of stewardship and responsibility that put such things as entrepreneurial skills and a cup of clean water in the hands of a poor child.

For the faith that inspired those spires teaches us that the hands that receive them are Christ's own. It's the kind of faith that inspires business plans for start-ups from people who have failed more than once in business but who have a social conscience. It can even help lift the global economy from its knees.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  stories of vision, passion, risk and adventure have poured forth
stewardship and responsibility help put entrepreneurial skills and a cup of clean water in the hands of a poor child

January 9, 2009

Creating Wealth to Build Peace

Echoes of 'Oh little town of Bethlehem' were still resounding this Christmas when Israel began its retaliatory campaign against militants in Gaza. How appropriate, therefore, that Pope Benedict XVI should already have chosen to deliver his New Year message on the priority of peace-building.

The Pope's message is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, it sets commercial enterprise at the heart of poverty alleviation. This may not sound remarkable to those who recognize that the only solution to material poverty is material wealth, and that the only means of generating such wealth is business. But the church's centuries-long antipathy towards business means that church leaders tend to be reluctant to acknowledge this.

The Pope also argues, secondly, that commerce is fundamental to the building of peace. This too is rarely heard from church leaders, even though it can be found in the work of Thomas Aquinas and at the foundation of the Enlightenment, the Dutch Republic and the United States. More recently it has featured in the 'Golden Arches Theory' of conflict prevention proposed by the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, according to which, no two countries with a McDonalds restaurant have ever gone to war with each other. While this may no longer be true, the contribution of commercial enterprise to peace and security is key to the role of enterprise in alleviating poverty because it is almost impossible to attract commercial investment to areas of conflict.

But it's not totally impossible.

As Middle East envoy, Tony Blair has helped initiate an ambitious investment plan to boost the peace process through the creation of jobs for thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and the same vision has inspired the equally impressive achievements of the Portland Trust. These efforts go some way in fulfilling the vision of earlier generations in this region, whose hope for peace was often tied to the vision of the coming messianic age, in which trade had a key role (Isaiah 60:5). Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah's purchase of a field in the context of war was regarded as a sign of hope that the peace that will allow the buying and selling of fields would one day be restored (Jeremiah 32).

One of the Pope's predecessors, Paul VI, declared 'the new name for peace is development'. It's a phrase as compelling as the one with which Pope Benedict ended his New Year message: 'to fight poverty is to build peace'.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  the only solution to poverty is wealth, and the only means of generating it is business
the new name for peace is development

November 19, 2008

Unleashing Entrepreneurship

As the economic crisis deepens, redundancy is likely to be happening at a company near you. Many employers and governments will seek to soften the blow but the loss of skills and knowledge threatens to impoverish us all.

Key to the solution is entrepreneurship. While this requires no state programmes to initiate, governments that do assist aspiring entrepreneurs get good value for money - the average cost of a business start-up is less than the average annual cost of keeping a student at university, a prisoner in jail or a family on welfare.

Entrepreneurship is also largely independent of race, gender and class. As such, it is one of the most meritocratic spheres of society. And whereas in many workplaces, careers are thwarted by whimsical managers, there's little to stop entrepreneurs once the spirit of enterprise has been awakened within them. Taking what amounts to a step of faith, they mobilise their talents, knowledge and judgement in pursuit of a vision.

Although this vision can only be realised in service to others, until recently 'entrepreneur' was a dirty word. While those with engineering and business qualifications vied for jobs in large firms, directors of such firms often dismissed entrepreneurship as none of their business.

But this week's Global Entrepreneurship Week (17-23 Nov) testifies to a worldwide entrepreneurial revolution. Employers in organisations of all sizes now test potential recruits for entrepreneurial mindsets; governments are supporting entrepreneurship as the best antidote to poverty; and church leaders are validating pioneer forms of ministry that give birth to fresh expressions of church.

Some may wonder whether entrepreneurship has biblical warrant. But if entrepreneurship is about innovation, judgment and risk-taking, archetypal figures such as Abraham, Jacob and David reflect, despite their faults, strong entrepreneurial traits. Yet the primary model of entrepreneurship occurs at the very start of the Hebrew scriptures, where the curtains open on a God who overflows with innovation, wise judgment and the willingness to take risks - especially the risk of creating human beings and inviting them to join his start-up as stewards of the earth.

Redundant workers should not all be told they need to become entrepreneurs. Studies indicate that less than fifteen percent of us have what it takes. But those who do have what it takes deserve our help in unleashing their potential. For they represent the source of jobs and wealth through which all of us receive our daily bread.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  entrepreneurs cannot be stopped once the spirit of enterprise has awoken within them
a global revolution of entrepreneurship is underway

October 6, 2008

Recovering Thrift to Solve the Credit Crisis

The credit crunch stems from a deeper moral and spiritual crunch. At stake is a virtue on which capitalism depends - thrift. Resolving the crisis will involve a recovery of this virtue.

Most westerners have long had access to grassroots saving institutions, such as building societies and credit unions. But recently, while commercial banks have focused their investment opportunities on 'high net worth individuals', financial institutions targeting the 'sub-prime' market have proliferated. The growth of this anti-thrift sector is partly responsible for the high levels of consumer debt that have become an accepted feature of advanced economies, but now threaten to undermine them.

This raises questions not only about the morality of debt, about which today's moral and religious leaders are generally outspoken, but also about the importance of thrift, about which such leaders are generally silent.

Despite this silence, Hebrew and Christian scriptures support a theology of thrift. Literally, thrift means 'prosperity' or 'well-being', meanings encompassed in the Hebrew notion of shalom, which is central to the biblical theme of redemption. True, Jesus warned against laying up treasure on earth. But his warning is against greed and miserliness, which undermine thrift. In fact, the fear that generally accompanies these vices is evident in the words and actions of the third servant in Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). This servant's fear, based on a harsh picture of God, led to actions that were unimaginative, unproductive and risk-averse.

In contrast, the fearless words and actions of the two servants who 'put their money to work', reflect a God who inspires the imagination, productivity and risk-taking that characterize the thrift needed to convert barren money into fruitful capital. Having made this conversion, which underlies all investment and entrepreneurship, these two servants are welcomed into God's shalom economy: 'I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness.' Their thrift leads to stewardship and happiness. This resonates with two further meanings of thrift: 'prudence' and 'providence', words that appear in the names of two large companies that began as explicitly pro-thrift institutions: the Prudential and Friends Provident.

Opinion formers emphasizing 'happiness' should draw inspiration from the way happiness is obtained in Jesus' parable, to mount a public education campaign on thrift, linked to government-backed bonds to be sold at National Lottery ticket outlets. Millions of consumers, currently bombarded with gambling and credit options, would thus be offered the freedom and opportunity to save. This is the freedom and opportunity of the market economy - an economy built on thrift.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  high levels of debt have become accepted in advanced economies, but they now threaten to undermine them
imagination, productivity and risk-taking characterize the thrift needed for investment and entrepreneurship

May 9, 2008

Enterprising the Imagination in the Fight against Poverty

In the wake of natural disasters, the scale of human suffering defies comprehension. If we had trouble imagining the multiple lives and livelihoods that were wrecked by the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, we will be even more hard-pressed now, when the full extent of the sufferings caused by Cyclone Nargis in Burma is shrouded by the military's tight grip on the media.

When our visual imaginations fail us, our moral imagination needs to kick in. We see this in the rapid and vigorous response of governments, relief agencies, NGOs and faith groups to Burma's unfolding tragedy. But there is another sphere of life that is allowing the moral imagination to play a role in its response to human need, though this is generally ignored or denied by the rest of civil society.

As the news of Nargis' devastation was still breaking, leaders of the world's largest multinational corporations (MNCs) were holding a consultation in London to showcase how the commercial activities of their enterprises are helping to alleviate global poverty. The purpose was chiefly to inspire each other through the sharing of best practice.

Although the development community is becoming more willing to affirm the positive potential of business, this tends to include only micro-credit and fair trade. When it comes to big business, the focus, if not entirely negative, is generally restricted to corporate philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Micro-enterprise can indeed help poor people achieve subsistence, provide for their families and secure them against abject poverty. Fair trade can bring benefits to certain groups, and philanthropic and CSR initiatives can help MNCs increase their pro-poor impact.

But of much greater long-term significance is private equity and the core activities of MNCs, not least in facilitating the conditions needed for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to flourish. SMEs are the world's foremost creators of new jobs, wealth and opportunity, making healthy contributions to gross domestic product in many of the developing economies that are growing.

Significant development potential also rests in the fact that the poor represent sizeable markets to large companies that can use efficiencies of scale to supply goods and services that are within the purchasing power of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Three quarters of Vodafone's new customers, for example, are in low-income countries.

It is not only the moral imagination, therefore, that is shaping business' response to poverty. It is also self-interest and the spirit of enterprise. All three are powerful drivers of human behaviour. When they converge, the results are an important part of what the poor recognize as good news.

Peter Heslam

FOR LINKS AND FURTHER READING, CLICK HERE.

  businesses are allowing moral imagination to play a role in their response to human need.
small and medium-sized companies are the world's foremost creators of jobs, wealth and opportunity.