January 25, 2005

Equity before equality

"It's all about little people getting things done, what have the big people got to be afraid of?"

...This was the answer I received from a friend when I commented on the generosity of small business people in Australia, and the appauling lack of same from big business. When the Australian Shareholders Association hit the press with it's advice that corporations do not have a mandate to spend money helping tsunami victims, it brought into the daylight what most of us scarcely glimpsed - people with deep pockets are usually those with the least compassion.

When Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet donated $500,000 to the tsunami appeal it was a breath-taking display of generosity. But there was a deeper symbolism at work here, for this company has made it's name and fortune on the backs of independant travel through Asia (and the rest of the world). The gesture was a public acknoweldgement of what underlies their wealth and success - it was like saying "You guys have made us what we are, so of course we are willing to help you in return in this time of need."

What I respected most about Tony's philanthropic exuberance is the recognition that big business is not an island separated from the rest of humanity.

What I distain most about the penny pinching attitudes of the Australian Shareholders Association is the attempt to distance themselves from obligations of society and community. The message we here repeated again and again is that business need pay no heed to matters of humanity. The safety of workers is a consderation only when it impacts insurance premiums. The wealth and living standards of employees is of absolutely no consequence at all, and attempts by unions to improve conditions for their members is to the detriment of profit statements across the nation.

Enhancing the profits for shareholders is no excuse for bad manners and a lack of social responsibility.

Those shareholders who are so keen to make another dollar are still part of this community - whether they like it or not. They are members of a society. They breath the same air. They have family and friends. Do they have no capacity to see the consumer as a person? Do they think the people who buy the products that make their shares so valued are not real? Would the shareholders prefer to live in a world where all these persona non-grata have been wiped clean from the earth? Would they finally realise then, and only then, that shareholder value depends soley on the community in which it grows?

So what have the big people got to be afraid of? It's really very simple, they dont want to open the door to anything resembling a social conscience. A lifetime of rationalising greed with the language of profits and finance - the sterile and sanctioned pursuit of wealth. Definitions of sucess become confused with corporate calculations. Vision becomes narrow. People live in the periphery. There is no room for equality.

January 18, 2005

You are not invited

There are two reasons why democracy has failed to deliver it's ideals in the west - the lack of representation for those who voted, and the lack of informed choice in the voting process. The nett result is an increase in poverty for the poor, exceeding wealth and power for the rich, and the frittering away of state owned infrastructure and community values.

Naomi Klein paints a vivid picture of what it means to be living in a 'corporate democracy'. Very large financial interests can undermine not only the validity of a democratic system, but eventually infects every layer from the top down. Deals made behind closed doors without accountability or scrutiny are far more likely to benefit someone's silk purse instead of the individuals of a nation.

More subtle yet far more pervasive is the cloak of party politics. Democratic systems which are built around opposing parties fail to achieve the most basic requirement of democracy - representation of the constituency. The Australian 'two party prefered' voting system pits one team against the other, minimising the scope for independant representatives to participate in government. It gets worse. Even those laughably named 'honourable members' who were voted into a parlaimentary seat on the party ticket are clearly more concerned to follow the party line than actually *represent* their voters.

Evidence of this failing can be found in those instances when the prime minister allows for members to exercise a 'conscience vote'. In this rare event we learn that the person your electoral seat voted for is allowed to make up his own mind (as your representative) instead of following the decree of his party. An exception to the rule. So the rule is to vote as your party does. What effect has this on debate within the parlaiment? Instead of each member being charged with duty to protect their constituents views the debate itself is reduced to political point scoring as the main players strut about in proposterous displays of self congratulatory flagellation. The focus becomes so skewed towards this game of boyish rhetoric that even the founding rules of parlaimentary engagement are constantly bended and broken - the absence of respect and dignity in the process is appauling and sad.

Democracy is not simply about voting however. In fact the vote is the least effective manner in which to engage in the democratic process. The rights to openly voice opinion, discuss issues and organise protest are fundamental in the process of executing that vote with care. This is not merely a matter of 'free speech'. Our world is dominated by media, as is the democratic process. Any bias or constraints upon an effective media will be to the detrement of the nation.

Effective media is rare. It requires specialised skill and great passion for truth on the part of the journalist. The viewing habits of western households however rewards shoddy entertainment more than considered editorial. The platform of the 'current affairs' format has shifted away from detailed investigation and moved into sensational hype and fear or "revealing" interviews with the stars. There is very little here to aid the process of informing voters of relevant facts.

Trashy television (or tacky tabloids) is regrettably not the worst of it. Instead we come full circle to the issue of excessive corporate power. In a world of syndicated content and cross media ownership there is very little opportunity for the insignificant viewer to lay bare the cogs behind the scenes. Having given over permission to the media to report sensation above sensibility we now find ourselves unbothered by journalistic integrity - we find ourselves accepting of filtered and manicured news sources which fail almost every basic requirement for a democracy. We know and accept that the interests of invested corporates will not be exposed to us or the news we see.

Complicit is the government of course. One hand washes the other. Instead of protecting us from the dangers of monocultured representations of the news, our governments recognise the potential for favourable coverage themselves when they lean in favour of relaxing ownership laws and cross-media constraints. It need not be conspiracy - pragmatism will suffice to avoid any undue pressure on the leaders of free enterprise.

In this realm their is no accountability. Our elected representatives in parlaiment have a duty to their party, first and foremost. They wont rock the boat. Let's face it, if they were the kind of people to throw a cog in the wheel then they would never have made it through the party filters. As a child I was told that if you cant say something nice about someone, dont say anything at all. The same applies to voting. If it doesnt work then dont do it. A visit to the polling booths will not change the current status quo.

In this world of party politics the fact is that you are not invited. So go do something else and start exercising the real power of democracy - informed choice, freedom of speech, and organised protest.

January 14, 2005

Starfish and Piglets

The past few days has seen a lot of talk in my circles about aid programs and delivering meaningful change to disadvantaged communities. Locating money to fund aid projects is just one side of the problem. Actually using that money to enable development is actually a lot harder than it looks.

A friend of mine told me a story about piglets. A very poor community in Cambodia was part of a program to purchase little piglets. $5000 kitted out most home owners with one or two sows while a few boars were also owned at the community level. The piglets were cheaper than the adult animals and easier to transport. Months pass and the piglets become pigs. The sows are bred and soon more piglets are running about the township. Before long our villagers have enough stock to maintain breeding while also utilising the remainder for food. By selling some of their future production of piglets the initial $5000 is repaid to the program and another community is started on the concept.

The two key elements here are 1) increasing the communities own capacity to develop and sustain a better quality of life and 2) the money provided is not a handout but a loan and must be paid back.

Not every program will ever see the $5000 paid back, but the view is that handout money leads to fewer success stories than repayment money. To raise the piglets the villagers themselves had to contribute to the development costs, which establishes a comittment level far greater than any one off donation.

It's a nice story and of course poorly reflects the complexity and obstacles which impact most aid projects. Establishing strong governance around a project is often difficult in a country where corruption and bribery are a way of life. Not every community (or parts of a community) have the capacity to participate and develop - the very poorest people are sometimes unsuitable candidates for building self-sustaining programs.

In the face of such uncertainty about using aid to impact positive change the parable of the starfish is my only guide. The story goes that a monk and his novice were walking along the beach one morning. A terrible storm had swept through the night before and thousands of starfish were stranded on dry land, unable to reach the sea. Without warning the monk stopped walking and picked up a single starfish, carried it back to the sea and hence saved it's life. The young novice was incensed, "What good does that do? Just one starfish! There are thousands on this beach, most of them already have perished. You cannot save them all. What difference can it make to save just one starfish?" The monk simply replied, "It makes a difference to THAT starfish."

January 05, 2005

Rich and poor

how do you make a living out of doing something that lots of other people can do.

does it matter whether you are very good at it or not?

making a living is not about quality of work, just business accumen.

is that fair? is that the best society we can build? what happened to the idea of egalitarian worlds, of banishing poverty, of equality among men? when did 'more and more' become a life philosophy?

we cannot simply sit back and accept that the gap between rich and poor gets wider. at a time of record national prosperity why is it we are degrading the standards in our schools and hopsitals?

why is it so hard for people to understand that 'the drug problem' and crime is merely a reflection of the extent to which people are isolated from wealth and opportunity in our society?

imagine a world where you are born into a different economic strata than the one you have now. imagine if you were born into the lowest strata, the lowest economic and social opportunities. now ask yourself, wouldnt you want the world to be a fairer place than it currently is?