The business of world poverty

April 24, 2008

How do you sell the need to address world poverty to business? The Business for Poverty Relief Alliance (an initiative of 'Business for Millennium Development') recently commissioned a report by Allen Consulting on poverty, which has just been released. The report, Business for Poverty Relief: A business case for business action, seeks to challenge business to understand that world poverty affects everyone, including business. The founding members are ANZ Bank, Grey Global Group, IAG, Pfizer and Visy Industries. I agree with the alliance's goals and much that it says, and applaud the initiative, but I'm uncomfortable about with some aspects of the 'sell' to business. First, some background on world poverty and Australia's aid effort to underline the significant need for more action.

Poverty facts
  • Almost 30,000 children under the age of five die every day, mostly from preventable causes.
  • 6,000 people die every day from diseases associated with lack of access to clean water, sanitation and poor hygiene.
  • Approximately 2.6 billion people live on less than $US2 per day (1 billion of these live on less than a $US1)
  • AIDS is the leading cause of death worldwide for people aged 15-49. In 2005 alone 2.8 million people died from AIDS and 4.1 million were newly infected.
  • In Australia there are special needs within the Indigenous community with life expectancy at 59 for males and 65 for females.
Australia's Aid Budget

Australia's overseas aid budget stands at 0.28% of gross national income (GNI). The incoming Labor government has committed to increasing this to 0.34% by 2010, which is wonderful, but this would still be well below the 0.47% average for developed countries.

The call to business

The up front objective of the Business for Poverty Relief Alliance is to look at ways that Australian businesses, through their various programs, services, markets, and professional staff, can make a difference to global poverty and contribute to the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations which were agreed to by world leaders, including John Howard, in 2000. The Business for Millennium Development (B4MD) project was an outcome of UN work. This objective is sound, as is (to some extent) the stated Mission. The Mission is to:

Provide a leadership forum that will act as a catalyst for change towards alleviating poverty and driving sustainable development in the emerging economies of the Asia Pacific. We will support Australian businesses to operate, innovate and grow in true partnership with the communities in which they operate.

Why "emerging markets"?

But why “emerging markets”? To understand this focus you need to examine the business case and the Millennium Development Goals themselves. These promise that companies which contribute to emerging markets have the potential for "improved supply chain, new marketplace opportunities, becoming an employer of choice, improved corporate culture, staff retention and morale, increased licence to operate, improved investor attractiveness, global corporate reputation, and personal motivation (for business leaders)." In short, tackling issues such as "hunger, universal primary education, child mortality, maternal health and the spread of HIV" will be good for business in developed countries.

The Business for Poverty Relief report has many commendable goals that could help to address poverty in some countries, but what bothers me is the fact that the report uses self-interest as a motivator for engaging with the fight against poverty. The report states:

"Global poverty represents a direct threat to the current and future prosperity of a range of Australian businesses through the loss of potential markets, damage to foreign affiliates and a greater risk of regional instability. In addition, contributing to the development of poor countries - by generating income, creating jobs and investing in local businesses and skills - can present Australian firms with the opportunities of new markets" (p. 8)

This sentiment is also picked up in a quote on the B4MD homepage:

"Companies that are considered leaders in implementing environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies to create sustained competitive advantage have outperformed the general stock market by 25 per cent since August 2005. In addition, 72 per cent of these companies have outperformed their peers over the same period"
Goldman Sachs, June 2007

A right motivation for giving

The question for me is what should motivate concern for the poor? What should drive us to address the injustice of world poverty as summarised by the facts at the start of this post? The Bible speaks nowhere of being concerned for the poor out of self-interest. Instead, a pattern is set first in the Old Testament to consider the poor. The Israelites were instructed to reduce production so that the poor could have more. Fields were not reaped right up to the edge (Leviticus 23:22), vines were not to be fully stripped (Leviticus 19:10), and gleanings were left to be gathered by the poor (Leviticus 23:22b). They were also commended to "....defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9b). Another example of justice in action was the concept of the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25) that was given to them by God as a way to redress injustices in the possession of land every 50th year, ensuring the return of land to original owners to avoiding more and more land being accumulated by a few. The Bible has frequent references to the need for concern for the poor:

Psalm 41:1, "Blessed is he who considers the poor!"
Proverbs 14:31, "He who oppresses a poor man insults his maker, but he who is kind to the needy honours him."
Proverbs 21:13, "He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard."
Luke 3:11, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food let him do likewise."

Isaiah 58:10 provides another insight into the nature of giving:

"If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not."

This passage follows a discussion of 'wrong fasting'. The Israelites had been embracing outward signs of faith with wrong motives. God demands from them fasting accompanied by genuine repentance, as well as a turning away from exploitation and injustice. "Is this not this the kind of fasting I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice and untie the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" (Is 58:6).

Of course this passage also throws up one of the great paradoxes of giving; that blessing comes from self-denial, and that we receive through giving (Luke 6:38). But this, of course, is not our motivation. The biblical pattern is to follow the pattern of Jesus, to lay down our life in order to gain it (Luke 9:24).

It seems to me that while well intentioned, the Millennium Development Goals are back to front. They start with a desire for personal gain and implement actions that reflect this desire. Nothing could be further from the Biblical pattern that Jesus’ life and teaching and sacrificial death on our behalf demonstrates.

You can download a copy of the Business for Poverty Relief report here. There are many great examples of generous giving from business and business leaders. Sacrificial giving based on compassion for the poor and a desire to seek justice for all nations, should be the call we issue to business, not giving based on self-interest.

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