Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cruising to the quake?

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake last week a very interesting discussion on CSR has arisen. While thousands of people are suffering, lacking medical care, let alone shelter or food, cruise ships from all over the (developed world) keep arriving in Haiti, albeit it not in the direct earthquake stricken zone around Port-Au-Prince.
Many newspapers reported about this and the debate whether it is good taste, let alone ethically sensitive, to have people dining and wining in the resort of Labadee while 160 kms to the South people have hardly anything to eat for their naked survival. The case raises a typical dilemma for business ethics which shows how important moral imagination and a sound command of ethical theories can become for a company.
Royal Caribbean International, one of the companies whose ships still dock in Haiti, takes a clear utilitarian stance on this. Their CEO was quoted saying:

"My view is this -- it isn't better to replace a visit to Labadee ... with a visit to another destination for a vacation. Being on the island and generating economic activity for the straw market vendors, the hair-braiders and our 230 employees helps with relief while being somewhere else does not help. People enjoying themselves is what we do. People enjoying themselves in Labadee helps with relief. We support our guests who choose to help in this way, which is consistent with our nearly 30-year history in Haiti."

Indeed, cruise liners bringing business to the island is resulting in the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’, compared to them stopping it or going elsewhere. But it seems to be more a question of fairness and equity, which raises the eyebrows of some commentators. In some ways, the strongest argument comes from what we refer in our book to as the ‘postmodern’ view on ethical questions, as one blogger put it:
"To me it's like going to a funeral and singing and dancing around the casket."
Yesterday in the Canadian News they showed thousands of people sitting in the port of the capital but unable to leave the country because of lack of fuel. Watching a white cruise ship with a nine hole golf course swiftly gliding by is not what these people need right now. Maybe the fact that people ‘enjoy’ themselves in poor countries is a problem in the first place. The earthquake just makes this unfair and unequal distribution of wealth on the globe just that little bit more visible. Even on a normal day in Haiti, there is still this grotesque gap between luxury on the ships versus abject poverty starting meters away from the fence of the resort in Labadee. Why else would one need to guard it by armed security even on a normal day?

For companies such as RCI these are no easy times. But they are in the moral maze of solving this dilemma, as it were by default. And one cannot say they are not trying, having also pledged $1m in food relief which they will deliver with the help of a local NGO. Engaging in blogs, working with local players and to find a pragmatic solution on the ground, reflects some lessons in discourse ethics. At the end of the day, RCI's behavior just reflects the demands of their stakeholders, most notably their customers: only very few of RCI’s customers are reported to have cancelled their cruises...
(We would like to thank our colleague Nancy Sutherland at Schulich for alerting us to this story.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar – or the perils of stakeholder dialogue

Let’s admit it, Crane and Matten so far haven’t ventured too far into the Science Fiction genre in the movies they picked for the book and their classes. This might change though now with James Cameron’s (the guy who made ‘Titanic’) latest movie ‘Avatar’.

Before we go on, it’s fair to say that it takes the (nerdy?) eyes of a business ethics professor to see all sorts of things in this piece of celluloid which we don’t think has been the prime intention of its creators. In the main, this film (watch it in an IMAX, if at all possible) is a wonderful visual experience, with beautiful 3D-shots of fantastic landscapes, fairytale animals and a really stunning screenplay. No wonder then the film has netted US$1.3bn in the first two weeks at the box office and is already the second highest box office hit in history. It is 225 minutes of forgetting everything and just being swept away in a dream-world – what a fun it would be to ride these magic birds and fly through a universe of translucent flowers, bewitched trees and flying islands of jungle landscape…

This said then there are a number of things worth commenting on from a business ethics perspective. First and foremost, the human invaders of the planet ‘Pandora’, where those native ‘Nav’is’ are living is no one less than an evil mining corporation in its pursuit of the precious, energy yielding mineral ‘Unobtainium’. Unfortunately, the mineral is buried beneath the monstrous tree which is the main living space of the Nav’i tribe. This is funny in itself. No longer governments or galaxies are clashing here – no, it’s a private corporation, helped by a monstrously armored crowd of private security contractors.

But the scientists of the corporation have devised means to communicate with the aliens: they have developed a machine which allows some humans to assume the body of the aliens and enter their territory with the mission of convincing the natives to leave their living space. As things go however, the main hero of the film, after entering the world of the Nav’i, gets to like them just a bit too much, falls in love with one her warrior princesses and ultimately changes sides. In some ways one could say, a botched approach to stakeholder dialogue.

Now this has happened before. Quite a number of CSR activists, NGO leaders and other antagonists of global capitalism had their initial career in business and changed through exposure to its impacts on the environment, indigenous populations etc. It also shows that approaches to stakeholders which just intend some manipulation of those groups, are ultimately doomed to fail. And that’s where the movie goes on to, until the final battle sets the humans back and sends them to where they had come from.

Don’t get us wrong; none of this we think is what the film is really about. And that’s ultimately a weak point of the movie – in our view. The story is just too full of distracting details. That includes the somewhat awkward love story, the references to imperialism, the Iraq war, global terrorism, opaque religious symbolism, or the general anti-technology message – in a film, no less, which delivers this message through the most advantaged technology which cost some $250m to produce.

So its mostly fun to watch, and entertaining is what the film does really well. Or, as David Denby put it in The New Yorker: “The movie’s story might be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!”