Thursday, October 29, 2009

Five decades ago Peter Drucker said religion and politics have had their day; now business would shape society. The religious leaders were accountable to their gods and their scriptures; the politicians have their electorate to face. Who would business be accountable to?

Notwithstanding the economic crisis in which they landed the world, many businesses are still growing bigger and getting more powerful than many governments. The way we have developed the ‘free market’ has meant that for millions to keep their jobs and earn their bread the consumer has to keep consuming even after his needs are met. Along the way most of us seem to have lost our values. As money is the most widely spoken language, consumers would be enticed to consume more and more while for the starving millions on the other side of the world have little hope of their needs ever being met. Values and ethics would remain on the display posters. Whatever the businesses may claim a majority of them will be obliged to keep the shareholders happy with good profits and do the minimum required for the other stakeholders and the community. The larger society will not be a natural priority. There are some notable, if fewer, exceptions.

With remarkable innovations business has been meeting people’s needs, making life comfortable and reducing the drudgery of daily chores. But because business has to keep selling to stay in business there is a sustained campaign to get people to keep on buying even after their needs are met. There are millions across the globe whose needs are nowhere nearly met and there is a market there. But their buying power is limited and it is more profitable to keep making things the greedy would buy than to meet the needs of the needy.

In the light of the global crisis many economists wrote that the entire model of our economy itself needs to be turned upside down. The values that drive a business should spring from a passionate care for the deprived and the poorest. Campaigns need to be to make the customer think for others, less fortunate; to make caring and sharing as exciting as getting things for you. There would be many beneficial ‘side effects’ of such a change in the goal of business. You would produce for needs so the over exploitation of nature would stop and hopes of averting a climate calamity would rise. The customer and the ones in business would trade short-terms pleasures for deeper happiness.

Utopia? Idealism?

Perhaps! Yet an increasing number of Business leaders, NGO activists, professionals and other concerned people have been grappling with issues like these at conferences organised by Caux Initiatives for Business (CIB). This special issue of Disha, to mark this year’s conference, presents some of these men and their ideas along with some of the ‘best practices’ in work situations. We salute these remarkable men and women who might just change things and secure our future.