"One Company is Not Enough" – Changing the World, One Business at a Time

business, ethics, religion, spirituality

We are living in times not dissimilar to the Reganite and Thatcher years of the 1980s, when the market logic of economic growth was definitely in the ascendance. The resurgence of market dominance brings with it very serious, potentially destabilising down sides. Can markets, as currently structured, ever deliver solutions to the gross inequalities which are increasing exponentially? Can markets solve the global existential threat that is climate change? Can markets deliver on human rights in the fullest sense? As things stand, I have to say no. It just isn’t possible. Businesses lack the foundation of a social contract, which only democracy can deliver. As the recent Trócaire report “Where aid meets trade” shows, there are serious issues of accountability at stake.
Yet last week I attended a global conference which made me realise how much more the business community has to offer – and the powerful role businesses can play if underpinned by a deep philosophy and vision. Back in the 1990s I wrote my PhD on a little known global project called an “Economy of Communion” (EOC). The idea behind it was simple: engage business leaders in a spirit of communion (taken to mean a deep, enduring commitment to sharing with those in need rather eucharist bread and wine) and it will have transformative effects. The businesses involved committed to sharing their profits in three parts – as a direct contribution to addressing inequality, but also as a sign of their commitment to a new kind of economy.
When I did my PhD on the EOC it was early days. The project had just been launched in Brazil by Chiara Lubich in 1991. It had experienced an initial burst of enthusiasm, but was beginning to struggle in its attempt to delineate the respective roles of the faith-based inspiration, business acumen, and the practicalities of operationalizing a form of truly global sharing before Web2.0 existed! Certainly there were many inspiring individuals involved, but the potential for widespread impact was less clear to me. In the first book I wrote on the subject in 2004, I didn’t hold back my critique, pointing to many serious questions that needed to be answered if the project was to fly. In my second book in 2011, launched in UCD,  I was a bit more optimistic, but I still questioned the capacity of the EOC to transcend its Focolare roots.
Fast forward to 2015. I received an unexpected invitation to speak at a conference organised by the EOC and the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi. On an impulse, I accepted the invitation. It was the most unexpected, extraordinary experience. I found myself in a hall of 400 business people and young entrepreneurs who subscribe to the EOC philosophy. The people present represented many thousands more who were watching online or running the businesses. Most of them were Africans, many were from Burundi and Congo. One after the other they shared their stories of how they try to “live communion” in their businesses, in their local communities, and in global initiatives. They outlined projects of all sizes designed to bring the spirit of integrity and communion into the most diverse environments. They called on others to support them and they did not hold back. Their stories all demonstrated the same thing: business can play an extremely positive role today. It can be an agent of transformative change – a paradigm shift.
Having stepped back from the EOC for a number of years, and focused on political advocacy, I felt like I was witnessing the blossoming of the most extraordinary movement for good in the world. Here were business people from all over 40 countries coming together at their own expense to freely share their advice, their technologies, their ideas, and their capital with others who badly needed it – not for their own personal gain or out of paternalism, but in a genuine spirit of fraternity. The focus had shifted from singular, isolated EOC business people, who had a commitment to redistributing profits, to building a global network of communities who were connected in a common bond of building a more just, sustainable economy. Someone said it was about ‘loving’ the company of the other as your own, in a shared effort to support others in need and build a new economic culture. As one person put it “one company is not enough.” And the social impact of the idea is already significant.
Whilst I was at the conference I had an intuition, which hopefully is a sign of things to come. We live today in an era defined by resource scarcity: there are not enough resources to go around. The resources we have are ununequally distributed. It’s the basic conundrum at the centre of the climate change debate and post-2015. But what if those resources were shared – in a spirit of communion? What if “yours and mine become ours”? What if this can take place not only on the level of individuals or small communities – but also in businesses which define success in terms of communion? Business like this can become an invaluable instrument for good. Suddenly resources are multiplied, because the bonds of fraternity put in motion a tsunami of generosity which knows no bounds. Scarce resources paradoxically become abundant when they are shared in common. “Ubuntu” (the traditional African word for the feeling of community) is has far greater value than the claim to individual property.

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On the power of remembering together

history, memory, pope francis, religion, spirituality, Syria

This week we marked a number of important anniversaries. I was reminded of the importance of taking time to stop and remember. The act of remembering together or ‘commemorating’ is something so powerful.
The fourth anniversary of the start of the ongoing conflict in Syria is one that should cause us all to reflect. The media this week has been full of pictures of families torn apart by war, mothers unable to grieve for their babies, unbearable scenes of inhumanity made all the more poignant due to today’s mother’s day celebrations. Twenty humanitarian organisations published a scathing report on the crisis and the inaction of governments to resolve it. This article by Trócaire’s director Éamonn Meehan illustrates the situation many NGOs, like Trócaire now find themselves in. They are trapped in an intractable, horrific conflict which has no end in sight, with unimaginable scale of need. Most NGOs were never designed to cope with such need. The whole crisis meanwhile seems to have slipped into the background as other crises have overtaken it. It has become a new kind of ‘normal’. It is hard to see where the political will is going to come from to start to resolve the growing regional crisis in the Middle East. No country, no leader seems prepared or able to act to stop the carnage.
This week also marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Chiara Lubich, an Italian woman whose cause for  beatification and canonisation is being considered by Pope Francis (who also celebrated an important anniversary this week!). Chiara Lubich is a spiritual hero of mine and is one of the great spiritual teachers of our age. Her message of unity today is very timely for Christians, but also people of other faiths and none given the context of conflict in Syria and across the world. Events are being held all over the world this week to highlight the political and policy relevance of her message. It is a message borne out of the utter destruction and despair of the Second World War. It invites everyone to embrace a new consciousness of being and becoming one human family.  
What appeals to me most about Chiara is that hers is not a theoretical or ‘top down’ message nor a ‘soft’ fussy message nor one of ‘charity’ as commonly understood. It is a message of sisterhood and brotherhood that is actively lived, constructed, born and reborn each day in small and big acts of heroic love. It is a pedagogy of love. Heroic in the sense that living it involves a daily commitment, an orientation – a willingness to embrace, move through or beyond the suffering, isolation, self-doubt, that is part of being human. It is this ‘discipline’ of love that Chiara saw creating something like a bridge that draws down a ‘divine’ presence on earth. It is a message of ‘synthesis’ which I reflected on here in response to Cardinal Turkson.
I was fortunate to meet Chiara on many occasions. I corresponded with her regularly since my mum first met her when I was just eight years old. I owe her a great deal in terms of the support and wisdom she shared so generously. Like great spiritual leaders before her, she was the embodiment of her message – ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, as Ghandi said. Her memory lives on in the great spiritual ‘family’ she generated, the Focolare Movement, and in the many millions of people she continues to touch by her charism.
Both of these anniversaries, in their own way, reminded me of the importance of valuing memory and historical perspective, especially for those who believe in big ideals. This is not about sentimentality, as I was reminded this week in Berlin at an event on the histories of humanitarianism. The workshop was looking at the role of religion and empire in shaping humanitarian cultures since 1945. It was fascinating to uncover the interlocking influences which shape the work of NGOs today. I’m not a historian, but I have to say I found the whole discussion extremely relevant to the complex issues that Trócaire and other NGOs are grappling with in Syria and globally. Pressure tends to result in frenetic activism, but there is a great need within NGOs to take time to remember together, to learn about our histories and play the long game. Only through understanding where we have come from will it be possible to face future challenges with confidence.

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