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Rights and Wrongs - Gandhi’s Lessons for Davos

Commentary, 29 January 2019

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

The global elite who effectively control many of the levers of power in the world, met last week in Davos for the annual  World Economic Forum

The Forum is often criticised for being a talk-fest of the wealthy with few opportunities for the poor and marginalised to raise their concerns. While non-government organisations are represented at the Forum, the bigger and better-funded NGOs have greater access than others.

Some critics also resent hidden agendas at Davos, whereas others feel interest among participants has slackened - perhaps more so this year as many world leaders have stayed home to address domestic concerns amidst a growing wave of populism and anti-elite sentiment in countries from all regions.

The Forum does not solve any of the problems it discusses – no gab-fest can – but there are sufficient opportunities for many leaders to meet quietly (though no longer discreetly, since global media descends to cover the events) to explore ways forward. 

Some critics resent hidden agendas at Davos, whereas others feel interest among participants has slackened.

Some ideas initially discussed at the Forum have become full-fledged projects. The UN Global Compact - which took shape after former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan made a speech there urging businesses to act responsibly on human rights, labour and environmental standards - was an early step in advancing the corporate responsibility agenda globally. I represented Amnesty International from late 1999 till 2006 as the office of the UN Secretary General gave shape to the initiative.

Another example is the project that resulted from the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad bin al-Hussein’s Davos speech, on the role of businesses in safeguarding the rights of LGBTI people. This inspired the OHCHR to develop, with support from IHRB, the Standards of Conduct for Business with regard to the human rights of LGBTI people. A year later, the standards were unveiled at Davos.

What happens at Davos is not sufficient by any means, but it is does provide a platform to make headway in dealing with problems that seem intractable. 

What happens at Davos is not sufficient by any means, but it is does provide a platform to make headway in dealing with problems that seem intractable. 

Those who attend the Forum have a sense of self-assurance and belief that their good intentions can make the world a better place. Business does bring discipline in managing costs and seeking efficiency, and as former Economist writer Matthew Bishop argued in his book on philanthrocapitalism, business can often play a positive role in society because of the resources it can raise and the way it donates its wealth to tackle problems. 

Anand Giridharadas, a former McKinsey consultant and former New York Times reporter, has written a new book highlighting the inadequacies of such approaches, showing the very real limits of what business can do, and how we cannot get complacent merely because the Davos men (and few Davos women) have decided to make specific issues a priority. 

The economic rise of China and India, which has undoubtedly raised income standards in those countries, masks the very real inequality in many other parts of the world (and indeed in both those countries). This is a point Thomas Piketty makes with persuasive statistical evidence in his pathbreaking book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Indeed, Oxfam’s report released on the eve of this year’s Forum shows how inequality has widened, which has not only made the poor poorer in many parts of the world, but also created conditions for racism and xenophobia to thrive in many countries. Maria Hengeveld’s recent critique of modern business, published in The Nation, makes valid criticisms of the plethora of nice-sounding words, such as ‘purpose’ which describe what businesses do; the euphemisms clouding the far harsher reality. 

The rise of economic inequality in India is very real. While the country’s gross domestic product shows enormous growth, and the wealthy elite live a life that is reminiscent of the gilded age, there isn’t a corresponding rise in employment, and there is considerable restlessness among many sections of the society which are left out by the boom. Coincidentally, I write from India, where I am attending a learning lab organised by Oxfam for Indian civil society groups to translate global goals on sustainable development into local impacts, to achieve better development outcomes, and how the private sector can be influenced to play a meaningful role. 

Gandhi made three compelling points which resonate clearly today in helping define the purpose of business. 

This week 71 years ago marks the date on which Mohandas Gandhi, also known as Mahatma (the great soul) was murdered by a Hindu nationalist in India, soon after its independence. Gandhi’s life was his message, and commitment towards the one who wasn’t free, who was poor and vulnerable, was his lifelong mission. Religion and ethics certainly influenced him profoundly, but so did justice  and fairness. Indian historian Ramachandra Guha’s two-volume biography of Gandhi – Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World 1914-1948 (both of which I reviewed here and here) paints a vivid portrait of the greatest Indian of all time. 

Gandhi was radical and did call for the boycott of British business interests, including the burning of British clothes, but he was not against capital. Indeed, his struggle for India’s independence was funded by leading Indian businesses, including the Birlas, Bajajs, and Sarabhais, and many others, beside countless Indians who were less privileged. But he made three compelling points which resonate clearly today in helping define the purpose of business. 

First, he spoke of trusteeship.

Businesses would prosper only if they acted with a larger public purpose driving them, acknowledging their privileges and operating in an ethical way, while realising their limits. It means taking operational decisions that are in the wider public interest. It means giving back to the society, but doing so by understanding the intended beneficiaries, and acting with the consent of the people whose lives are affected by its operations.

Second, he was an environmentalist who believed in sustainability way before it became a buzzword.

He believed in keeping the environment clean, in reducing use, recycling products, acquiring less, and dealing with waste appropriately. Cleanliness was an obsession for Gandhi - he saw purity in cleanliness, as well as a way to ward off diseases rampant in the tropics. 

And third, as he wrote in a note days before he was murdered: 

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” 

Companies should act as custodians of the environment, act with consent of the people affected, protect the environment, and keep in mind the rights of the most vulnerable.

In effect, he was asking those with authority to act in the interests of those who are the most vulnerable.

What was Gandhi saying throughout his life? That companies should act responsibly, as custodians of the environment, act with consent of the people affected, protect the environment, and keep in mind the rights of the most vulnerable and take steps to mitigate harm. The UN Global Compact, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all other UN instruments including covenants and declarations and protocols and platforms for action, corporate statements of values and codes of ethics, and, indeed, the deliberations at Davos, say in far more verbose words what Gandhi called for in simpler language, and the principles by which he lived. 

Imitating Gandhi, or doing lip-service to his ideals, as many politicians and businesses will do this year, as the world celebrates his 150th birth anniversary, will create many photo opportunities. But Gandhi’s life was his message; living by his principles will make corporate power restrained, corporate actions less abusive, make due diligence meaningful and, perhaps, the world will become a little better. 

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