Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Living proof of the power of capital?

This post comes from one of our occasional guest bloggers, Dr Laura Spence,from Royal Holloway, University of London. She's also the unofficial Crane and Matten photographer having been responsible for our latest profile pic to the right, (as well the one it replaced). Thanks Laura!


While Crane & Matten have been enjoying a well earned break, I had an intriguing and thought-provoking week here in the UK. On Monday I was invited to a talk by Bill and Melinda Gates, the entrepreneur behind Microsoft and his wife. The purpose of their talk was to spread the word on an initiative called the ‘Living Proof project’. They asked the audience to tell the story further, which I am happy to do here.

Akthough focusing only on US investments, Living Proof reminds us of the progress that investment in sustainable development has resulted in over recent decades. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have played a substantial role in these improvements alongside government aid and the work of charities and other institutions globally (though interestingly not much mention was made of the contribution, such as it might be, of business).

Some of the incredibly encouraging facts that Bill and Melinda presented are worth registering: 5.4 million child deaths were averted through immunisation between 2000 and 2009; we are nearing the eradication of polio; 98 million fewer people are going hungry in 2010compared to 2009; in Africa measles deaths dropped by 92% between 2000 and 2008.

No-one is suggesting that poverty and public health are not still critical problems globally, but progress has been made. Aid is a large part of the reason for these wonderful improvements in the lives of the poorest. Highlights of their talk can be seen at: http://www.one.org/international/livingproof/share/?rc=email , or for the full blown version, go to http://www.one.org/international/blog/?p=3988 .

Meantime, I have been pondering what it is that makes people like Bill and Melinda Gates, who have dedicated a large part of their lives to generating vast wealth, switch focus and seek to give it all (indeed, 95% in their case) away. They are not the only ones to take this route (think of James Carnegie, William Hesketh Lever, George Cadbury, Thomas Holloway). And I should say I don’t mean to have a dig at Bill and Melinda. I wish others would take a leaf out of their book. But what is it that motivates such a shift?

It would be easy to assume that in some cases it is to assuage guilt for spectacular financial success by means not always bathed in moral glory. Well, maybe. But there appears to be something more going on. Accepting moral responsibility for the power that wealth delivers must also play a role. Being released from the shackles of complex, large organizations with multiple priorities may be another reason. Or is it a question of the enormous gratification – better surely than any number of diamonds or private jets – that must come with saving lives? Perhaps ensuring a positive social legacy is also a driver. There again, thy may just be in a position to do good, and willing and able so to do. This phenomenon of refocusing on public good post-career is not just a privilege of the private sector. Pop stars, and politicians, all represented ably at the Bill and Melinda Gates talk, have also been known to do this.

You do have to wonder though, if some of the people we deem the most successful in our society have ideas of philanthropy in later life, why don’t they get thinking about what they can do NOW, with the tools at their disposal. Why do many of us fail to adequately ‘do good’ during our day jobs? This was part of the discussion at a workshop I was involved in last Wednesday on Social Enterprise. This enigmatic concept broadly encompasses the idea of an organization that has social or environmental drivers as the PRIMARY goal. It is a huge phenomenon and is an area to watch in terms of research and, more importantly, its actual impact on pressing global problems.

Last Wednesday also saw the UK government announce the details of a strategic spending review intended to reduce the UK debt, which will cause a great deal of pain over the next few years. While the axe has been taken to nearly every aspect of public spending and the benefits and welfare system in our country, miraculously the investment in foreign aid has been pretty much spared. Though I didn’t spot him there, maybe the Chancellor was listening to the message from Bill and Melinda Gates. I sincerely hope a few business leaders will too.

Laura Spence

Photo by Johnny Vulcan. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

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