Opportunities - a market euphemism or real progress?

by Miriam Garvi

Having spent the past two days submerged in thoughts about urban poverty, the growth of megacities and the persistence of slums, tomorrow’s lecture on pioneering leadership will be a welcome relief, providing anew the opportunity to consider the world as if it were a blank page waiting to be written.

In the discipline of entrepreneurship, we celebrate the virtue of spotting and exploiting business opportunities. Seldom considered, however, are the wider premises framing this picture. When the needs of the desperate sustain the growth of another, the temptation to create dependency rather than self-sufficiency or independence is too great for comfort. Too many people know that in many industries, market jargon eclipses the miserable reality of the ‘clients’, as they become part of a compelling story aimed at attracting capital and funding: aid organizations need pictures of starving and destitute children to sustain fund-raising; less cancer patients would mean the loss of a huge market for pharmaceutical companies. And, if we want to take the analogy even further, war or the prospect of war sustains the market for weapons and military technology, a main driver for technological innovation that has spilled over into many parts of civilian life, including our ability to communicate over the Internet.

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The world is full of ambiguities, more or less coated in opportunistic rhetoric, but placing high requirements on the existence of a moral compass that will steer efforts, energy and resources towards initiatives that do not sustain suffering and misery, nor create other unwanted side effects, but that seek to become redundant in the sense that the particular need disappears. This implies a dynamic perspective of constantly seeking new areas to improve that is challenging to implement in practice, and requires the support and encouragement of policy-makers, investors and the wider community. Cure or better yet prevention rather than lifelong treatment, helping people provide for themselves rather than falling victims to debt traps, making products that are better and last longer rather than encouraging people to consume and replace – all can imply the loss of opportunities from a marketing viewpoint, but gains from the perspective of human progress. In today’s world, companies and actors do still differ, though surviving without compromising one’s core values is a difficult thing to do. I hold in high esteem any drug development company, for instance, with enough moral integrity to invest massively in addressing the need for new treatment of a particular illness, while being able to consider the decline of patients in that market a success. This shows a company with higher goals and standards, unwilling to consider its own growth as detached from the wider societal framework in which it operates, and where it has the opportunity to do much-needed good. I do also realize, however, that unless society will reward this kind of behavior and enable such a company to access the support that it needs to do this well, then it will sooner or later succumb to the financial pressures of the stock market.

Be it in politics, finance, business or charity, we need more people to rise and show the way who are visionary in their thinking, and who will not shrink from addressing the combination of market and moral challenges that are inherent to any development worthy of its name. Pioneering is a spirit, free from the constraints of vested interests, where understanding, betterment and progress rather than control, self-preservation and replication constitute the focus. It is holding on to our purpose rather than what we have created, not forgetting that any product or service, however big or small, will always be used or consumed by someone – the people behind the market.

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