Pulling People Out of the Poverty Trap
01 October 1998

Why does Herefordshire farmer Chris Evans organize a conference on ethics in business and industry half way up a Swiss mountain each year? The most tangible and obvious reason was summed up well by the first speaker at this year's Caux Conference for Business and Industry (CCBI).

Why does Herefordshire farmer Chris Evans organize a conference on ethics in business and industry half way up a Swiss mountain each year? The most tangible and obvious reason was summed up well by the first speaker at this year's Caux Conference for Business and Industry (CCBI). 'As we face increasing globalization and its ever present consequences, how can we ensure that ethics are at the heart of global development?' asked Klaus Standke, head of an international research institute in Berlin.

The second, more personal, reason was shared by many of those taking part in this year's conference. Evans says he feels he is a lucky person. He has never wanted for anything materially. But he remembers a feeling of boredom and an 'over-comfort' that lacked a sense of purpose when he was growing up on his father's farm. It was only when he visited India, at the age of 18, and experienced the poverty so prevalent there, that he felt he truly found his calling. Ever since, he says, his aim has been to 'help the poor of the world to help themselves to reach out of the poverty trap'. This sense of unfairness led him not to the slums of Calcutta but towards tackling the very source of the inequality -- the distribution of wealth through business and the global economy.

The CCBI conferences were not initially what he had in mind. But events conspired to lead him into taking responsibility for their coordination over the last 12 years. They have been running for a total of 25 years and have drawn over 6,000 participants from business and industry around the world.

Among the concerns of those taking part this year were unemployment, poverty, exploitation of the environment, and what Lianna Stanescu, manager of a small printing firm in Romania, called 'the bad sides of capitalism'. Many of the East European participants reflected her concern, complaining of a deterioration of family bonds and community values, and a growing inequality since economic liberalization. Greed and assessing a person's worth by their possessions seem to be the values capitalism exports first.

Credibility is essential to the CCBI conferences, says Evans. It is no use talking about ethics if they are not firmly rooted in the experiences of businesses, employees and professionals.

And credibility they have. David Bussau, founder of Opportunity International in Sydney, Australia, said he began life as an orphan. Last year alone, his organization created 151,000 jobs in 27 countries. His vision of 'a job for every family' is being fulfilled by loans which average $400. 'Credit is essential to pull people out of the poverty trap,' he said. For every job created, six people, including family members, were taken out of absolute poverty.

Unemployment, in both the developing and industrialized worlds, was the subject of one of the six forums at the CCBI. Participants hope to collect examples of best practice in job creation from around the world over the next five years.

Jackie Brandt, a regular participant at Caux, has been the director of a Swiss metal- working factory since his father's retirement in 1971. During that time he has implemented an almost unique system of management based on values of honesty and equality. He meets regularly with his employees to discuss the future of the business, both its strategy and shop-floor practices. After three years as director he thought the business should diversify into aluminium products. While this seemed to make sound business sense it was also a means for the young Brandt to make his mark on the company. In any other business the director's word would go, but here the employees advised Brandt against his plan. He accepted their expertise. Three years later, during the Middle-East oil crisis, many of his competitors who had diversified into aluminium went bust.

Brandt's motivation comes not only from his business sense but also from a yearning for the 'truth'. He had become frustrated, he says, with churchgoers who followed the church but didn't look into their own hearts to find change. MRA and the CCBI helped him to find an 'unadulterated' way of reaching that truth. Ever since, he has been coming to the conferences to learn and give his experience to others.

People at the start of their working lives came to learn from experiences like these and to discuss their own problems. Anastasia Antsoupova, a 22-year-old director of a company importing car parts in Novosibirsk, central Russia, was one. She saw the need to practise 'gymnastics for the spirit' in order to keep the human skills of integrity and honesty, essential in dealing with employees, suppliers and customers. Coming to the CCBI, and attending a training course in values for democracy in her home city, provided a 'gymnasium' which she felt would keep 'love in her heart' and give her 'a pure and unselfish nature'.

Caux and the CCBI provide a safe place for people to explore such ideas -- and experiment with other philosophies. One person who pushed out the boundaries this year was Indian management consultant Arun Wakhlu. Coming from an Eastern spiritual background he encouraged the participants 'to see the whole of the sky that the windows of religion simply look out on'. It would be easy to think that a world-view of this kind would be sneered at by the hard-nosed businessmen from transnational corporations who employ his services. But Wakhlu takes as his starting point the problems that a particular business is facing and then, 'because all problems are rooted in the spirit', works with the managers to tackle them. His own company reflects this, stating as its priorities the development of its employees, followed by quality service to its customers and finally the generation of profit in order to achieve the first two.

The benefits of the CCBI are personal as well as global. Bruce Myers, a young American financial worker, said he found that ethics versus personal opportunity could be a hard choice; the kind of hard choice that most of those making their way in business will have to grapple with. Often people don't speak out for fear of rocking the boat and jeopardizing their career prospects. He hoped that the discussions he had at the Junior Round Table (a CCBI forum) would help him to make the right choices in the future.

Kees Scheijgrond, a former Dutch naval officer and one of the CCBI coordinators, felt that this year's event was more spiritual than ever before -- a view which I, as a participant, would agree with.

Economies need 'a human face' that cares for the disadvantaged, gives opportunity to the needy and vitality to culture. It is easy to forget that economies are not ends in themselves but a means to an end. The ends can be achieved through the work of individuals, like those who attended the CCBI, who light candles in the darkness that will turn into a fire.
Sandy Hore-Ruthven