Thursday, March 23, 2006

Enlightened self-interest?

A few days ago the Body Shop was sucked up by L’Oreal and now, literally closer to my home, Tom's of Maine has been bought by Colgate-Palmolive. Is this a defeat in the battle between wicked corporations and socially responsible businesses or a positive trend that highlights the growth of enlightened self-interest, where big businesses are learning that do gooding matters for profits and people? I am going to pay attention.

I like the term "enlightened self-interest," which first resonated with me while watching a BBC documentary on the Africa Live concert to fight Malaria. (Very good concert and film!) The documentary showed an interview with a representative of ExxonMobil, one of the main funders of the event. He was pretty inarticulate and awkward and many people watching the film groaned in cynicism. But commentary by one of the film makers after the movie highlighted that in today's world, we may scoff at ExxonMobil for being involved in such a campaign, but that the ExxonMobil employee's "enlightened self interest might be the best we get."

I tend to agree.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

So much for expanding my mind...

Let's not hide it. I'm generally on the left-ish side of the political fence. But in an effort to be open minded and read diverse magazines, I signed up for the newsletter from the Weekly Standard. I just got my first e-mail and read their featured article, It's Hard Out Here for an Iraqi, which, I think, was trying to challenge the view that Guantanamo Bay is causing increased hatred for the US.

The article contains long and odd excerpts from the tribunal proceedings of this disturbed guy with some issues around his sexuality and his "small penis." He also has tendency to say "fuck" a lot and clearly had some financial issues. In short, he seems very confused and, according the author, Thomas Joscelyn, is by "no means typical."

So, what should I take from this?

In the author's conclusion: "There is no hint of Ali's fate in the transcript. The tribunal board continually reiterates that it doesn't have the power to make an immediate decision. For all of Ali's troubles, he says, he would like to be freed and serve America. If the U.S. military won't take him, there's always hip-hop. Or Yale."

So, in 5,000 pages of tribunal proceedings, this writer finds a guy in Guantanamo Bay who has huge personal issues with his sexuality and family, who doesn't support the former Iraqi regime or the Taliban and wants to "serve America." Does that mean I should stop questioning the human rights implications of detaining people with no charge for four years?

And they feature this article on their listserv?

Pass me a copy of The Nation, please!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Blindspot: Peter Drucker

As a humble, humble student, I enjoy coming upon blind spots in things I think I should have heard about and have totally missed. Peter Drucker is certainly a good example. I just read my first article today, mostly because, for some reason, many articles and books I have been reading over the past few weeks tends to quote and reference him...a lot! (No, I never took a management class, but there should have been lots of cross-over in my public policy MA.) He was rather prolific, so I better keep reading.

As one who digs into the terminology of the nonprofit/third/volunteer/civic sector, I found his description of the "social sector" in the The Age of Social Transformation (first published in The Atlantic Monthly, November 1994) to be something easily digestible.

We still talk of these organizations as "nonprofits." But this is a legal term. It means nothing except that under American law these organizations do not pay taxes. Whether they are organized as nonprofit or not is actually irrelevant to their function and behavior. Many American hospitals since 1960 or 1970 have become "for-profits" and are organized in what legally are business corporations. They function in exactly the same way as traditional "nonprofit" hospitals. What matters is not the legal basis but that the social-sector institutions have a particular kind of purpose. Government demands compliance; it makes rules and enforces them. Business expects to be paid; it supplies. Social-sector institutions aim at changing the human being. The "product" of a school is the student who has learned something. The "product" of a hospital is a cured patient. The "product" of a church is a churchgoer whose life is being changed. The task of social-sector organizations is to create human health and well being.

I will not touch that comment about the product of a churchgoer, but I take issue...

The concept of well being, while squishy, is something I hear more and more about. I think I will come back to "well being."

If anyone has thoughts on, arguments for/against or general insight into Drucker, do share.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Democracy backlash

I have always liked the writing of Thomas Carothers, who has done a lot on US and international efforts to promote democracy.

He has a thoughtful article in the March/April 2006 Foreign Affairs called The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion. It raises some concerns I share about the language the US now uses in "democracy promotion." It also mentions consistency, a theme that usually gets overlooked in the pressing political debates. I think it matters.

President Bush can, however, win back some credibility by showing that he is serious about democracy promotion as a matter of principle, not just as an expedient way to justify military action or the use of other tactics of regime change against unfriendly governments. Pursuing democracy as a matter of principle does not mean focusing only on lofty ideals and ignoring hard interests. But it does mean acting with at least a modicum of consistency. In his second inaugural address, Bush seemed to acknowledge this point when he promised to abandon Washington's unfortunate history of supporting autocratic regimes that served U.S. economic and security interests. Arguing that repressive societies breed extremism that can evolve into anti-Western terrorism, he pledged to stand up for freedom everywhere.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Do gooding these days

Oh, do gooding isn't easy. I don't want to comment too much on these links, but I really like Global Giving, I am dying to purchase William Easterly's The White Man's Burden : Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good and this Post article hits some crucial points about the "bureaucratic, supply-push approach" of international development.

It seems that do gooding is becoming more business-like these days. The Economist published a thought-provoking survey on The Business of Giving last week that highlighted some interesting issues in giving and philanthropy.

I am curious. Social marketing, social enterprise, social entrepreneur, venture philanthropy? Something is happening to the language of the "charity" and "non-profit" sectors. Good, bad or indifferent, it is changing.


At the risk of starting something with religion...

Lev Tolstoy (yeah, I like Russian literature) once wrote an essay called What is religion and of what does its essence consist?" You are dying to rush out and buy that one, I bet! One caveat here: I am not so preoccupied with absence of religion (at all, seriously), but one passage has stuck with me for many years:

The main reason for the terrible cruelty between men today, apart from the absence of religion, is still the refined complexity of life which shields people from the consequences of their action. However cruel Attila, Genghis Khan and their followers may have been, the act of killing people personally, face to face, must have been unpleasant to them, and the consequences of the murder still more unpleasant: the wailing relatives and the presence of the corpses. And thus their cruelty was restrained. Nowadays we kill people through such a complex process of communication, and the consequences of our cruelty are so carefully removed and concealed from us, that there is no restraint on the bestiality of the action. The cruelty of some people towards others will continue to increase until it has reached unprecedented dimensions.

Lev wrote this in 1902. I wonder what he meant by the word "communication," or if that is even the exact word he used in Russian. I pass along the quote because it has always made me think about the complexity of our relationships with each other. And, to put it simply, it seems like a good starting point.