Saturday, 3 October 2009


"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live." - George Bernard Shaw

Today was the last day of the conference and as I attended all three days I was considering by the end of today what the conference achieved, what I learnt and also what I could do on my return home. As is the case with such conferences, there are a lot of very clever people present and many fantastic ideas are vocalised. There are visionaries and impassioned idealists, some socialist and altruistic social reformers, but also there those who are vain and self-centred, and of course there are the hypocrites and the opportunists.

Dr Ting Choon Meng is a local Singaporean who has developed an innovative monitoring wristwatch that is used to record cardiac parameters on a 24-hour basis in patients with heart disease (with great commercial success). It has saved the life of many people who are under increased threat of stroke and heart attack. He was one of the panellists in one of today’s sessions and he related a story of a Chinese man who lived in a remote part of China. This man for the last 40 years had carried out a job that he felt was essential for this community. He lived in a village, which several decades ago had become bisected in two because of geological upheavals and the re-coursing of a river through the middle of it. As the two halves of the village became separated by the river, this man sold his house, bought a boat and became the ferryman for the village. He demanded no payment for the job and he survived completely on his fellow-villagers’ contributions to his daily needs in terms of food, clothing, etc. Quid pro quo. Dr Ting gave this as an example of an individual being someone who responded to a social need by innovating and resolving a problem in the community, all for the social good.

I was thinking about that all day, especially in the context of what had transpired over the last three days of the conference. This ferryman was certainly an altruist and maybe even a socialist, but he was certainly not a “social entrepreneur”, which was what the conference was about. Had he been one, he would have sold his house, asked for more money from the villagers (his backers) and he would constructed a bridge to span the river. He would have charged a toll every time someone crossed it and in time not only recovered the initial capital, but also made a profit – while at the same time responding to the social need…

I then reconsidered the substance of the conference. Most of the attendees were very much capitalists. They were industrialists and bankers, company directors, CEOs of multinational companies. They were relating their experiences following an “epiphany” they had had regarding sustainability and environmental care, social reform. The classic case was Rob Walton the heir of the “Walmart” fortune. He related how he spearheaded the “greening” of his company and how suddenly, Walmart became a company with an environmental and social conscience. This is of course was in response to a huge public outcry about unsustainable company practices and the selling of products that were quite clearly not “green” nor particularly socially conscientious. Walmart’s turning “green” was an astute business decision which assured their continued profits and shareholder satisfaction with company performance.

My concern with the conference that has been niggling me a little was whether this “social entrepreneur” focus was not simply a front for capitalist interests. Green is sexy nowadays and it sells products. A company can be made or broken based on its green (or otherwise) policy. It also makes sense for large corporations to sponsor environmental causes (as well as the obvious good PR, it is also a good tax break). Am I being too much of a cynic here? I think not. The DBS bank of Singapore was the “diamond sponsor” of the conference. Its representative at the conference was quick to point out that the bank did not indiscriminately back socially worthy projects, but rather the projects with “connections” had a better chance of being “supported” (and he made it clear that this “support” was not necessarily of a financial type). They were even gracious enough to waive bank charges for the supported projects! How generous!

There was a message that came through the conference which on reflection grated on me. It was the concept of “success” being equated with “financial success”. Our Chinese ferryman would not have been deemed to be very successful if he attended the conference and I doubt if he would have got any award. Mr Walton of Walmart (personally worth a cool $25 billion) on the other hand won the jackpot award of the Social Innovation Park of Singapore. He got awarded as the Super Duper Grand Fellow or something or other. He was obviously the “social entrepreneur” that we should all aspire to be.

Another representative from Conservation International got on my nerves today. Firstly, he left the panel discussion before the designated finish time as he had another “important” appointment (which was very rude in terms of the conference attendees, some of whom had come thousands of kilometres to hear his pearls of wisdom). He was wearing his Armani designer suit, his Rolex watch, his Prada shoes (I suppose – do they make men’s shoes? I wouldn’t know) and no doubt earning an annual salary that could support several third world country families for several years. What made it all the more annoying – no, stronger than that – more infuriating, was that his salary was paid by public contributions to appeals and by company handouts. No doubt, he is doing some good, I suspect that some good must come out of the efforts of such groups, but at what cost? I am not suggesting that he should have come to the conference in overalls and gumboots, but are annual salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollar and a branded image necessary for someone representing Conservation International?

The concept of branding came up. Building a successful brand for a social entrepreneur was deemed to be of prime importance as this was to contribute to being successful commercially. Dignity of underprivileged and third world country populations was equated to their ability to purchase commodities and “brands” at the same level as a first world country. This struck me as another attempt by the capitalist system to survive in a climate that is still causing extreme hardship in the countries that built it. The USA will suffer from many more years from the effects of the economic recession, and the greed and avarice that caused it is now being peddled as “social enterprise”. We know that Communism didn’t work, we are experiencing the failure of rampant Capitalism, is “social enterprise” sand in our eyes? Is it thinly-veiled capitalism set to take advantage of us again?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not red. Perhaps a little pink, but Communism doesn’t appeal to me, it is as extreme as capitalism is. A socialist regime with strong government overseeing of national resources, control of public utilities, fair taxes, realistic limits of financial control, and many incentives for social equity is perhaps what represents me politically these days. At the same time, enterprise and personal hard work should be rewarded and sloth penalised. But I cannot support the system that rewards one individual’s work with an annual salary that runs into millions. No one person’s work is worth that much.

What I did not hear at the conference was an acknowledgement of the work of the ordinary person. To be a worker in a factory and earn a decent salary that allows you and your family to live a decent life was not even mentioned. To be a farmer who tills the earth and puts bread on the table was not something that was considered to be a worthy thing. To be an artist, or an intellectual, or a musician was not acknowledged as an essential part of our social fabric (unless of course one was a “brand” and earned millions)…

I need to think more about this. I am quite wound up over it at the moment, I need to consider it more, ruminate upon it further, discuss it with some people. I am worried that during these three days something did not ring true… Your thoughts on the matter will be appreciated.


  1. You have definitely presented some very complex issues. Your story of the ferryman brought up lots of memories of the "turnpikes" here in the US which were suppose to be toll roads for only a short time in order to retire the debt used to build them. Must be huge debts because decades later they are still charging tolls. The people that use them have gotten accustomed to paying for that privilege so why change it.

    The same sort of argument was used about higher food prices because of the rise in fuel costs. But when the gasoline prices went down the food prices stayed elevated. The CEO's did not want to confuse everyone by lowering prices that might need to be raised again.

    I watched an interview with the Wal-Mart heir over the same issue of fuel and shipping prices. He said Wal-Mart was big enough they could use their clout to force manufacturers to put their products in smaller packages. Maybe actually fill vitamin bottles to the top and/or make it so a box car could carry twice as many Barbies because of less excess boxing. That would save shipping costs and fuel.

    I thought it was a wonderful idea. But the vitamin bottles are still half full and Barbie dolls still come in packages 4 times the volume of the doll.

    I do hope you continue to process the conference and give us the benefit of your thoughts here on your blog. I have heard more than one economist say the "new economy" that emerges out of this recession will not be mega-consumerism. Gucci shoes will no longer be seen as a plus. Just as you rankled at the attire of that last speaker.

    Maybe bloggers can have an effect on the green directions and the excess greed of directors of companies.

  2. I'm probably pinkish myself...perhaps even dark pink? :)
    Hard work and effort should be rewarded, but does this soley need to be financial?..sometimes the satisfaction of achieving something or doing something worthwhile is reward enough...people need to live, though and it's always a less stressful existence if folks don't have to worry about paying the bills, and I'm sure most of us are delighted if we receive a pay rise....however, as you mentioned it's the excess...the greed..those who are out to accumulate more and more wealth..much more than they'll ever really need or even's the whole emphasis on financial or material wealth that's just so wrong..does wearing Gucci make that person better than another? that a sign that person is successful?...and should so much emphasis always be placed on 'success' itself, even?....I think 'effort' and the 'process' of doing something should not be minimalised, even if that person doesn't actually achieve what they set out to do..and of course, sometimes it's nice just to enjoy doing something without feeling under pressure to achieve something from it.

    Interesting and thoughtful post-conference analysis of the issues raised, Nick..I'll bet many of the others there did their post-analysis in terms of how much they profited from it!!

    Interesting thoughts, Nick

  3. I think what you have written is valid, Nicholas. I have seen too many of these conferences gloss over serious problems with a lot of hot air. A lot of "rah-rah" will not solve serious issues nor will awards to capitalists for increasing their profits help the majority of us that have trouble coping with paying the rent and putting bread on our table.

    A recent example with the economic downturn was the handouts that were given to big industry. A lot of that money went to paying out executives with obscenely huge golden handshakes. Such a system is neither fair nor socially responsible.

  4. The way that the big companies were "helped" out of the messes they created themselves was a warning sign that most folks didnt notice. If greed and corruption get rewarded, then its no surprise the world in the state its in.

    What you say rings true and lots of hot air wont change the world for the better. But I'm not too comfortable with socialism. I believe that people should get fairly paid for the work they do. As you say no person does work thats worth a million bucks a year.

  5. get the wall st jockeys to work in a sweat shop for a few months and let them see what hard work is like.
    parasitic non-productive jobs like agents, investment consultants, managers, bleed society and create greedy self-centred money grubbing parasites.