Thursday, July 31, 2008

The tangled ethics of black economic empowerment

Following up form our last blog entry about South Africa, the latest issue of the magazine Ethical Corporation provides an interesting feature about he impacts of the black economic empowerment (BEE) policies in South Africa. Citing a recent report from Harvard economists that was commissioned by the South African finance minister Trevor Manuel, the article offers a damming verdict of the policy, which it suggests "is failing the poor of South Africa and not helping business... the policy designed to right the wrongs committed against the country’s black majority during apartheid is working only for a few"

'Reverse discrimination' always makes for some tense ethical debates, but in the South Africa case, the sheer scale of past inequities provided a powerful rationale for introducing some radical measures. Not everyone was completely convinced by BEE, but by going beyond simple hiring and promotion quotes to include a groundbreaking attempt to spread business equity and control to previously disadvantaged groups, no one could say that South Africa's leaders were not ambitious.

The evidence that seems to be emerging though suggests that perhaps they were too ambitious, particularly given the social, economic and political context that South Africa is faced with. The Harvard report points to corruption, personal enrichment, poor financing of BEE equity deals, and some pretty unrealistic targets as some of the key factors that have driven the scheme off the rails. Without sufficiently well-educated and trained talent to fill BEE places, quota programs have run into problems, whilst a skills shortage has been exacerbated by emigrating whites dissatisfied with the skewed labour market. Positive discrimination, if it is going to work, needs to take a root and branch approach that tackles the underlying conditions of inequality (education, poverty, health, and some of the institutional arrangements of business and society) alongside its attention to the symptoms.

BEE is far from a lost cause, and the latest report, whilst controversial, will provide some much needed oxygen to a debate that can all to easily collapse into anger, point scoring, and various forms of racism and political correctness. Supporting or criticizing BEE can sometimes come across as taking sides in a political debate, but ultimately the most ethical policies are those that actually improve people's lives in meaningful ways. So, upholding the moral purpose and principles of BEE is crucial, but clear sighted reform so that it has a greater impact on ordinary black South Africans may be the best, and the most ethical, way to go. Business and government will both have to play a part in making that happen.

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