Thursday, December 4, 2008

Business as usual

Social responsibility and social businesses ought to be really attractive options in poverty alleviation: bending capitalism and using it to right its own wrongs. I have used this approach when I created the Healthy Basket organic business, and I have published about this when the concept was still in its early stages. However, and for reasons I could not understand, I always cringe when the same concept is expressed by other players, especially by large corporations wanting to do good. Like last week, I was at this “Agribusiness Solutions” conference in Cairo, and I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable most of the time, especially when I was hearing representatives of large agribusinesses using the lingo of social development.

Part of the conference was held in the Sekem Farm. The whole Sekem operation is really…unexpected. This is a large scale (2000 employees) biodynamic farm with many other sidelines like consultancies and eco-products. It has everything to comply with social responsibility and it looks really impressive (look here for the Global Compact report here). The founder-owner of this mega organic company according to the Sekem site won the alternative Nobel prize in 2003 (what’s this? Do they give it on alternate years?). It looks like Sekem only produces export organic goods.

There were hundreds of participants from Peru to Sri Lanka, and many came from NGOs. But the big corporations were very much present. The purpose was to exchange knowledge and experiences and solutions to the eternal problem of linking farmers to markets. Everybody was very earnest, in an Obamesque way, and all the keynote speeches used “Yes We Can” at least once.

It was the widespread endorsement of Obama that opened my eyes: the mainstream corporate actors have internalized what was once considered a leftist discourse, and are using it to gain access and establish better hold on the system. The development rhetoric, inspired from countless UN publications, was impeccable: we heard about livelihoods, partnerships and integration. We also heard a lot about innovations and opportunities. But I heard mostly about exports-exports-exports.

It sounded as if development and livelihood amelioration were only contingent on providing the global north with year-round, clean, standardized specialty food from the global south. For example, the opening speech by the deputy head of UNIDO marveled at the infinite possibilities offered by globalization, such as being able to eat watermelon in Vienna in November. We also had the opportunity to be exposed to aberrations such as a project for improving the grapes export from India to Europe, which was hailed as a success. The person who was presenting proudly told the audience how all the products which pass the quality tests are exported, while the rest goes to the local market. Everybody applauded.

Standards and traceability, it appears, are only important if they are applied to export goods. The underlying creed was: the Market wants this, so We shall provide. And We shall also talk about global warming while promoting the shipment of refrigerated goods by air transfer across the globe, so that the Viennese can eat watermelon in the winter.

One of the main items of the agenda was the improvement of the value chain. I’m fully convinced of the need for a systematic analysis to better locate the rate limiting steps. But the “value chain” approach is too restrictive and restricted: it starts with farm operations and ends at the table. In reality, it should start with rural livelihoods (very broadly defined, see here) and end with nutrition and well being. The main interest appeared to be “how to better commodify food”. But food is much more: its production systems are enriched with culture and tradition and environment and resources. The market cannot deal with that.

Luckily for me, I happened to stumble on this great essay by Slavoj Žižek called "Nobody Has to be Vile", in which he, in his typical Žižek way, pokes fun and exposes the "liberal communists". It also helped me comprehend better my apparent contradictions. Here are some of the gems of the article:

"Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go?

Some of them, at least, moved to Davos. The tone of the Davos meetings is now predominantly set by the group of entrepreneurs who ironically refer to themselves as ‘liberal communists’ and who no longer accept the opposition between Davos and Porto Alegre: their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake (thrive as entrepreneurs) and eat it (endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility, ecological concern etc). There is no need for Porto Alegre: instead, Davos can become Porto Davos.


There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! – i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation. The structure of the chocolate laxative can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape..."

Read the rest here, it is really worth it.

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