Thursday 24 April 2008

The business of world poverty

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.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Economists suggest that money CAN buy happiness

Andrew Leigh (Associate Professor, Australian National University) has posted a short piece pointing to new economic research on happiness. The work by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers seeks to debunk the widely accepted Easterlin Paradox. Essentially, this paradox refers to three observations:

1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
2) But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier."

Christians have seen the above as largely compatible with much biblical wisdom. But Stevenson and Wolfers have sought to re-analyse old data and add some new data not previously available. They argue that their new analysis leads to a very different conclusion, namely that:

  • Rich people are happier than poor people.
  • Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
  • As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.
This neat alignment between money and happiness is at odds with the Bible's teaching. We explored the theme of happiness in our most recent Case magazine and reached quite different conclusions using both the Bible and economic research. Ben Cooper, writing as an economist and theologian, discussed "happiness stagnation", the phenomenon that once a nation reaches a certain level of prosperity, further economic growth seems to have little or no impact. His interpretation is more consistent with the Easterlin Paradox and at odds with the most recent interpretation of data.

The Bible says little about seeking happiness but says a lot more about eternal blessings. In Jesus’ first major teaching event (Matthew 5:3-12) he makes it clear that those who mourn, the persecuted, the hungry and so on can have more than happiness.

Rather than focusing on external circumstances and pleasure, the key to life, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Instead of teaching about happiness, Jesus taught that we are to deny ourselves and follow him. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25). There are bigger stakes than temporal happiness; there is eternal membership of God’s family through Christ.

Even in relation to this short life on earth, the Bible teaches something radically different. As Paul sits imprisoned in Rome he wrote these words:

"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:10-13).

Our contentment the Apostle Paul suggests is anchored to our relationship with Christ. While we can influence our happiness through the things we do, the money and resources we have, the way we think and how we handle life’s situation, ultimately true contentment, of much greater worth than happiness, can only be found in God as we “confess Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11b).

Back copies of Case #14 that deals with Happiness are available for $15 from CASE.

You can read the full paper from Stevenson & Wolfers (if you're keen) or a short report on the research in the New York Times. I'm sceptical of course about the way happiness is defined and assessed in this study and how they compare data from quite different cultures and vastly different life circumstances. I'd be interested to hear from Christian economists on how they would interpret the new research. You might even want to join the online debate occurring at Freakonomics.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Your life in 6 words?

Great people's lives reduced to just 6 words? Now that's word efficiency.

The Book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure is a collection of almost 1,000 six-word memoirs. It includes entries from many celebrities including Stephen Colbert, Jane Goodall, Dave Eggers and others. It was the outcome of an online submission process that yielded 15,000 six-word memoirs

Which 6 words (or less) would we use to describe someone famous like Jesus? The Bible provides plenty of options.

"You are the Christ" (The Apostle Peter, Matthew 16:16)

"Son of God" (Various passages)
"The Word" (John 1:1)
"The Lamb of God" (John the Baptist, John 1:36)

How would you summarise your own life. Some might feel this could change every day. But how would you distill your life down to just 6 words? In my case maybe "child of God, husband, father, grandad" or "
risk-taking learner, forgiven and loved". It all depends on the perspective you take (sounds very post-modern!). Are you thinking of life roles, your personality, circumstances and events? It's an interesting experiment in self reflection.

The SMITH magazine that was behind the exercise has published some of the examples
online (see it here).

Here are some of the examples:

"I still make coffee for two" (Zak Nelson)
"Sperm too potent, now have triplets" (Renee Schunk)
"Never really finished anything except cake" (Carletta Perkins)
"Born in California then nothing happened" (Mark Harris)
"Nothing profound, I just sat around" (Daniel Rosenburg)
"Wasn't noticed, so I painted trains" (Mare 139)
"From Colombia to Columbina: 27 years" (Marisa Casey)

The magazine has recently asked for submissions of six-word memoirs for a future book (here).

Sunday 6 April 2008

The Perils of Dramatic Effects in Church

Having finished a sermon this week on the Church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) our pastor led communion. He linked his comments when breaking the bread to his message. We took the bread and grape juice and were quietly sharing it and praying. Suddenly a loud knock was heard at the door. People looked in puzzlement, perhaps some knew what was going on, but your's truly jumped up to investigate. Who should I find hiding behind the door in the foyer but the pastor - "I was doing it for effect - sorry," he whispered. "That's okay," I said, tying to hide my embarrassment, "Aren't you glad that at least one heard the call and responded."

Interestingly, the verse from Revelation (3:20) that speaks of Christ standing at the door knocking and which inspired Holman Hunt's famous painting (opposite) was one of two key verses in the sermon which led to my conversion as a 31 year old almost 25 years ago.

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

The other key verse was Matthew 11:28 "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

The Holman Hunt painting was also mentioned on that occasion (as it was today). Hopefully, next time, I'll be ready for any special effects that our pastor might use.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The loss of mealtime: Is it important?

A survey of 1,011 Australian families commissioned by food manufacturer Continental found that 22% eat together four times a week or less and 43% of parents find it hard to make time for family meal times. The survey also indicated that teenagers were less likely to eat with their family. The survey showed 77% of respondents' families ate together either every night or five or six nights a week.

Dr Rebecca Huntley, who reviewed the survey, commented that:

"This study, which is the first of its kind in Australia, shows that parents already appreciate the value of family meal times and are very willing to invest their time, but for many the pressures and distractions of modern living present major barriers.

Dr Huntley indicated that research suggests the optimum frequency for reaping benefits is for families to share meal times at least five times a week, Dr Huntley said.

The question is should we be concerned about this. One commentator on radio suggested that we should focus on the 75% who do eat together and added that when she gets home from work she just wants her kids to “leave her alone.” But others have suggested that surveys like this probably over-estimate family estimates and reflect lifestyle trends in this busy world that show reduced importance being placed on families eating together.

What is to be lost if families don’t eat together? Plenty in my view:
  • opportunities for parents to help children learn basic table manners;
  • monitoring and education about good nutrition;
  • modelling how people interact, debate, question, share etc;
  • opportunities to share what is going on in each other’s lives;
  • a chance to share anecdotes, family history and stories;
  • opportunities to share knowledge about all sorts, including matters of faith, morality and so on;
  • a break in the busyness of life to allow space for children (and adults) to share what is on their mind – their worries, hopes, fears, expectations, joys.
As Christian parents there would seem to be an even more critical need for meals where prayers of thankfulness and need are shared and where we continue the process of nurturing our children’s faith. This is very much the sentiment that Moses expressed in Deuteronomy 6, when he commanded the Israelites to learn and observe the commands, statutes and laws of the Lord so that they and their children might fear the Lord as long as they should live.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates (Deut 6:4-9).

In my experience as a father and grandfather mealtimes are one of those precious times when we stop and talk; when we have time to open ourselves up, to share the deepest things in our hearts and to share how God has been at work in our lives. Of course mealtimes aren't the only opportunities for families to talk and share their lives, others include bedtime rituals, play, shared hobbies etc. But if mealtimes are under pressure in families one suspects that other opportunities are also being lost. I’d welcome your thoughts on this.

You can read the newspaper report here.