The Global Agenda Outlook 2013 brought together Chan YuenYing, Director and Professor, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, Hong Kong SAR, and Michael J. Elliott, President and Chief Executive Officer, ONE, USA. Jim Wallis, President and Chief Executive Officer, Sojourners, USA, moderated the discussion.
Michael Elliott: The question of how we connect business to the common good has come into sharp focus since 2008. We saw the financial sector go into a sort of greed-induced meltdown; we saw governments that seemed incapable of tackling major problems. In the West, we are seeing levels of inequality that those of us who grew up in the period after World War II find almost incomprehensible. We all lose from that. And while free and open markets have demonstrated themselves as being a great source of prosperity, happiness and the realization of human potential, there’s a real problem in the extent to which inequalities are perpetuated generation to generation. Policy choices that we have made have allowed that to happen.
It’s not easy, but bringing together all sectors of society and finding common ground – persuading people to change the way they look at the world – remains worth doing. That truth hasn’t failed simply because we live in difficult times.
There has been a breakdown in trust in established institutions. But if we think that the solution is to rebuild trust in those same institutions, we may be missing the signal. Social media is creating new institutions. They may not be corporations, they may not have an HQ, but it is possible that we are finding new informal institutions that enable people to do things together. People today are less influenced by me, or you, or for that matter, by famous people, than by their friends.
And those friends could be from anywhere. When I first lived in the US in the mid-1970s, the foreign-born population was about 4%. Now it is 13%. That means that every network of someone in my own children’s age group includes people who were born thousands of miles away. I think there is enormous potential now to build truly global networks of interest, involvement, trust and common purpose.
I remain resolutely optimistic. Although leadership has been lacking in the past five or six years, some of the values-based choices we have made have been extraordinary. We chose to attack some salient global health issues, and we can now legitimately say that we can look forward to the end of HIV/AIDS, that we can end mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS within a few years. We’ve reduced death by malaria to an extraordinary extent. I take away from that the conclusion that we can make more of the same values-based choices.
In leadership terms, this will require determination; it will require us to make uncommon bedfellows; it will require money. But we can do it. Take nutrition: we can make choices in policy, food production and agricultural investment that bring nutritious foods to everyone in those crucial first 1,000 days of their life.
One crucial area where we can ensure and demand leadership is with the Millennium Development Goals. We’ve got 1,000 days to go before the deadline. So let’s put our shoulder to the wheel on the issues where we still have to make progress, whether that be sanitation, water or maternal mortality, while at the same time thinking about what comes next.
Chan YuenYing: We used to think that we knew what is good and what is bad. I am not sure we have that common understanding anymore, and one result – at the heart of many of the challenges facing the world – has been a loss of common trust in institutions. I see it in Hong Kong, China and the US. How do you rebuild the trust? How do you renegotiate that common ground? You have to go back to the issue of values.
Today, a person’s social media network is their network of trust, but social media has also disrupted traditional institutions. I am optimistic about the technology, but our ability to harness its potential is falling behind, and in many ways we are being led by technology. If we are not building the culture and institutions that can connect the virtual and the real worlds, you have another disconnect. People are making noise on the Internet, adding their grievances and hopes, but if those hopes cannot be realized in the real world, you only create greater frustration.
In China, you have a billion mobile phone subscribers. People are using mobile devices to get online, to organize demonstrations, to express the disaffection they were deprived of expressing before. How do people in business and government aggregate this? Where is the facility to monitor and to access opinion that’s expressed online? We are far behind in these tasks.
Leadership and vision are lacking. With HIV/AIDS, people consciously decided that we needed to tackle the problem – so resources were harnessed, decisions were made. Public-private partnerships worked. Now, those partnerships need to multiply. Government, business or civil society – we all have a stake.
We also need new economic thinking. The free market, we have learned, is not exactly free. It creates problems even as it claims to solve them. But has liberal capitalism run its course? What would come after it? Socialism as it has been practised is not the solution: we’ve seen that in China. During the 2012 leadership transition, the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was cited 81 times in the outgoing president’s report. He was saying: “Look, the China model has worked. China has lifted 600 million out of poverty and we have economic development without democracy”. I disagree, because that development is unsustainable – it has caused environmental degradation and a growing gap between rich and poor. What we’re looking for is a higher level of economic thinking, and I think that needs resources invested in it.
I would like to see two things. One is for leaders to challenge themselves and their existing institutions: they need the will and wisdom to make a break with old ways of doing things. The second is a kind of back to basics. You talk about the common good – what is it? Be kind, say thank you, be grateful, take care of the weak. Those are basic values that we learn in kindergarten, but somehow they have been lost because of greed and the drive for excellence. There needs to be a willingness among leaders and business leaders to recognize those values once again.
How the 2012 Elections May Have Changed US Politics
Jim Wallis: What really happened in the 2012 election was that a demographic time bomb went off. It is clear now that if all you have is white votes, you will never win another US election. And that could change our whole notion of politics in the US.
This is not about Democrats and Republicans – both parties are run by liberal elites and, after elections, their lives don’t change much. But, finally, a lot of people are adopting a post-party approach to politics – they are looking at how real issues affect real people. So, in future, both parties will have to compete for the values of diverse populations, and that might hold them accountable. The biggest obstacle to this, though, is the power of money over politics, which is stronger than ever. We need to take the money out and put the values back in.
Image: Students attend a class at the Oxford International College in Changzhou. REUTERS/Aly Song