Aug 26

by Miriam Garvi

I’ve never been one to care much about costs as long as I think they are called for, but tonight’s attempt at clothes shopping made me think about the value of things, what I am prepared to pay and to whom. It made me realize that many times when I look at something I’m telling myself: “This might be acceptable”. As in: the fabric is not paper thin, it is one of the few items in the store that is not synthetic, the design is more than two square pieces of cloth sown together and the seams have been finished off. Acceptable quality at a decent price - though a closer look indicates it was assembled hastily and without much care.

I had almost made up my mind to purchase one such very cheap item at Zara, when the label “made in Bangladesh” jumped at me. Bangladesh, the apparel industry, and factory tragedies… And then of course value and cost take on a whole different meaning. How would I value the work of the pairs of hands that made this shirt? If I knew something about who had made my clothes for me, how much would they then be worth? And what kind of quality would I expect in return? Indeed, if setting the price were entirely up to me, what would I be willing to pay for good fabric, for nice design and for good handiwork? And if I could find exactly what I wanted, what kind of clothes - whose clothes - would I really want to wear?

I ended up buying a whole different shirt, in a whole different store, at a whole different price, simply because it looked better. But I wish I could know something about the human effort that went into making me that new shirt, and how many pieces of clothing the person behind the sowing machine would need to work on every day in order to achieve the same standard of living as myself. I feel it would help me put things into perspective. And perhaps next time when I open my closet I would feel somewhat differently about the contents, because they would not just be clothes, but something someone helped make for my benefit. And that would imbue something as mundane as clothes shopping with a little bit of deeper meaning…

Jul 25

by Miriam Garvi

When I was writing my dissertation just a few years ago about the world of venture capital and the financing of entrepreneurial ventures, it was a challenge to find a terminology that would adequately convey the purpose of a particular enterprise beyond the doctrine of profit maximization.

Today, however, this has changed. Yesterday’s oxymorons have become politically correct, and terms like non-profit companies and for-profit philanthropy reflect the on-going upgrade of concepts ascribing a sense of common good to the narrowly-focused, profit-seeking objective that has dominated our view of companies and corporations for far too long. Hybrid terms such as the «for-benefit enterprise» are promoted as examples of how capitalistic interests will merge with the idealistic into a harmonious compromise as long as everyone stands to gain from the alliance.

But behind the plethora of upgraded labels, what is actually changing? Bill Gates proposed a win-win scenario for all through the Gates foundation. Does this mean that he has left his strong-arm tactics behind, or has he simply found a way of practicing technology dumping on future markets in a form that is socially acceptable to the global community?

Many will say that we should settle for an upgraded version of capitalism that will allow for the continued pursuit of wealth and growth, where the costs incurred in that process are affordable to our conscience. A system of compromise that we can live with, and yet remaining the major beneficiary of it all.

But what legacy is it to leave behind, if all we do is minimize the damage of our lifestyle having realized that it is not sustainable?

A compromising alliance between selfishness and philanthropy is not what will bring our world meaningful progress and prosperity. Nor is the enticing language that offers what it does not deliver a satisfactory answer. It is time to raise the stakes and start aiming for visionary initiatives, where unlike the hybrids, the purpose is crystal-clear: fulfilment that will truly benefit mankind.

Apr 9

by Miriam Garvi

I am one of those who have been following Barack Obama’s rise to power with interest. Especially, I am intrigued by how a simple electoral message consisting of one single word seems to be touching the right cord with so many people out there:

CHANGE

Thanks to the political and rhetorical strategy that has brought Obama to power, change is becoming synonymous with progress, i.e. with the belief that things will inevitably be better if only they are different.

But where is this change taking us?

It is quite evident that changes are occurring both on national and global levels. Climate change, terrorism, a financial system in collapse, massive unemployment on the way are all reports of threats to our existence. And amidst such perceived anxiety, a desperate call for strong leadership emerges.

This year’s G20 summit has been quick to respond, displaying an unprecedented spirit of global cooperation, coordination and collaboration, as the U.S. joins ranks with the EU, and even Russia calls for strong leadership on the global level. As emphasized by Obama at the press conference following the summit, “We all have responsibilities to work together.” And these days such responsibilities are summarized in a global deal to boost world growth, a tantalizing vision that should take us away from the insecurities of a «boom and bust economy» towards globally sustainable economic growth.

There is nothing new about the human mechanism that turns towards strong leadership in order to dampen anxiety. Our responsibilities, to paraphrase Obama, are not to abdicate our own freedom of action, placing our salvation in the hands of those people behind the scenes pulling the strings of influence on the global arena. Our responsibilities are not to buy into an enticing vision of a New World Order, putting all our trust in the panaceas offered by our world leaders without considering what costs will have to be paid in the process. This has been done before, and the result was oppression, genocide, and world war.

What good is change, if it comes at the cost of freedom? We cannot sell out our freedom to a change agency as it promises to take us out of the crisis, only to realize the price of it once there is no turning back.

As change agents, the opportunity is ours to bring about the kind of change that leads to meaningful prosperity. It is time to recognize that greed as a motor for prosperity has faltered. No longer can prosperity be narrowly defined as economic wealth. I have seen leprous people in Africa much happier than people in the West. Meaning, not dollars and cents, is the currency that motivates people to change the world for the better.

Mar 27

by Miriam Garvi

Today’s recession is bringing back the rhetoric of greed to the forefront, both among politicians and journalists, as a way of condemning practices now deemed excessive by the electorate, whilst keeping such practices at a comfortable distance from those who have long been in the position to influence the way we view the world and our own role within it.

It has long been held that greed, or self-interest as philosophers and economists endorsing this position would prefer to call it, is the supreme driving force behind enterprising, growth and development, and as such, the very motor of society.

But for those less fortunate who are now paying the price for enacted self-interest, as they find themselves laid off from businesses where top executives are cashing in additional bonuses, or left with mortgage loans that they have no means to service, this economic as well as moral rationale of a self-focused society is a far cry from the reality they are living.

Yet in the spirit of Ayn Rand, defenders of this rationale would argue that we owe nothing to the weak, who have only to opt to overcome their weakness by way of reason.

It is interesting how quickly societal thinking turns elitist when we who are doing the thinking are part of the fortunate few. The idea of «natural selection» and of the survival of the fittest is flattering indeed as long as we are the ones surviving. And if the purpose of it all is to be the last man standing, having beaten all contestants in the short-term, profit-making chicken race, then success is becoming rather void of meaning.

It is high time we wake up and see things as they really are, not as the dominant rhetoric, or the dominant logic, would want us to believe things to be. Let us be greedy, greedy for meaning! Let us engage in that which can bear fruit to the benefit of ourselves and others. Let us make a profit, but not a fortune. And let us reinvest for the benefit of mankind.

Mar 17

by Miriam Garvi

Imagine for a second that you have this beautiful Idea. A cure for breast cancer. A new solution for waste-handling. A brand of cookies made the old-fashioned way with real ingredients rather than artificial ones. Maybe your Idea was triggered by something on the evening news. Maybe it came to you as you were facing a problem, pondering on how to solve it. Maybe you were frustrated with the lack of good options available on the market. However it came to be, you’re full of excitement at the prospect of launching into business. Family and friends lend you the money for office space and you start working prospective clients.

Gradually, it all takes form. Yet it’s a slow start. After a couple of years, you’re still struggling to make ends meet, waiting for that major breakthrough that will awaken people to the beauty of your Idea.

Then someone comes along with an offer to invest in the business and a market plan that makes everything sound so simple.

Five years later, loans to family and friends have been repaid, with interest. Thanks to new resources and competent fellows on the board, the company has grown considerably and you’re working your way into the Chinese market. Sure, the journey has been slightly different than you imagined and things might have had a different outcome had you been the one making all the decisions. A new CEO has taken your place and you’re now in charge of research and development. But you’ve always considered that to be the most enjoyable part anyway!

But one day life’s not all peachy anymore. Your solution for waste-handling needs  improvement but there is no patience for that. Your investors give priority to sales and marketing – but there is no way of reaching the milestones that have been set whilst pushing quality to the right level! Angry customers are calling in, they feel cheated. Employees are coming to you for advice, imploring you to resolve the situation. Fatigued and frustrated, you try raising your voice at the board meetings but you seem to be speaking a foreign, quite exotic, language. Keep pushing is the message; we’ve got a prospective buyer for the company that will move things to the next level!

And one day, when someone close to you asks you about what happened to that dream of yours, it hits you. In the effort of turning your Idea into a lucrative service, it is becoming just another one of those things that promises far more than it delivers. Where are those beautiful qualities that you could not wait to share with the world? Longing for the passion for what you once saw, you ask yourself if it is ever too late to go back to what initially sparked the desire to do something that can make a difference.

No, it isn’t.

Feb 9

by Miriam Garvi

Aid in the form of loans certainly came in fashion when Mohammad Yunus was laureated with the Nobel peace prize for promoting micro finance as an instrument for development. Such micro credits would propel households of meager means into business activities otherwise inaccessible. As for any micro-enterprise that showed particular promise, it could be muscled up with venture capital provided by international funds and corporations looking to position themselves on untapped markets.

The ideal win-win relationship between David and Goliath that would put poverty in a museum?

Making financial resources available to those willing to start up an enterprise has long been seen by the economic establishment as the way to growth and prosperity for a nation. Nothing radical then about extending credits to lower-income households in developing countries in order to encourage them to launch into business. Micro debts may sound rather insignificant on the aggregate level, but when a family of meager income finds itself unable to service its loan, the cost quickly becomes unbearable.

In West Africa, however, a phenomenon is on the rise that is challenging the relationship between seed money, growth and prosperity as we know it.

In one of the more remote regions bordering the Sahara desert that offers few natural resources, a new generation of rural teen-age girls are enjoying a purchasing power that is unknown to most urban families. As food prices around the world are on the rise, these girls are not only buying what they need for the family household, but also luxury items such as jewelery and fashionable clothes. Those who were once the most vulnerable of all have become a powerful clientele attracting a wider supply of goods than in the city markets. And in response to growing demand, shops are opening aimed particularly at this young and empowered rural generation.

The source of this new-found wealth? A number of perennial, fruit-bearing trees that can grow naturally in the harsh, sub-Saharan environment. By allowing various species to grow in their fields, these farming households are now the proprietors of production units which produce fruit throughout the year, fruit that is much-in-demand at marketplaces spread throughout the region.

The original investment? A handful of seeds distributed for free to motivated farmers by the Eden Foundation.

The cost of these production units? The labor of sowing seeds in one’s field, coupled with some initial weeding during the first years of a seedling’s life. The vitality of the seed will do the rest.

The return on investment? Self-sufficient households with a surplus to spend on the lifestyle of their choice. And the process is completed without indebtment to any creditor eager to channel the recipient only into the kind of entrepreneurship that will enable them to feed off their investment.

Talk about a sustainable economy that is bringing prosperity to those who were once the poorest of them all.

Feb 2

by Miriam Garvi

This week-end saw the completion of the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. Since the forum launched its «Davos Question» last year, asking people to name one thing that would make the world a better place, future prospects have plunged into darkness. With jobs, homes, savings and pensions being threatened, who is thinking of making the world a better place?

The world’s elite of financiers, politicians and business people, anxious to restore confidence in a global financial and economic system, are calling for swift and decisive action. According to Tony Blair and others at the WEF, it seems that what we need is an enterprise system that is free but less greedy. So much for the professed virtue of selfishness.

Not so very long ago, a voice in the wilderness was calling for the kind of leadership that paired outlook and foresight with a concern for the well-being of coming generations. The voice was that of Georges Doriot, Harvard professor and father of venture capital; his vision that of an «Institute of Man»:

I have thought that we should have an Institute of Man.
This would be a group of outstanding individuals who could evaluate the progress which Man has made.
In light of this progress and the background of this progress this group could give some attention to the problems facing man today.
From these people the country and its leaders could seek advice.
But so far, no one has liked my idea and perhaps our leaders would not listen to such scholars even if the Institute existed.

Doriot’s idea was not about change, nor about remedying a system running wild. He was talking about the kind of constant visionary outlook that will view the world in terms of purposes, needs and implications, a goalistic dialogue not bound by any political or economic agenda.

Today, so many resources are poured into taming the monster we created. Let those with passion and integrity rise and show the good that can be done amidst the darkness.

Nov 27

by Miriam Garvi

With the on-going financial crisis affecting major financial markets all over the world, even Alan Greenspan, one of Ayn Rand’s most devoted followers, has admitted to finding a flaw in his/her ideology.

A set-back for those who profess that greed will make the world a better place?

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, however, are keeping their mantra: Liberalize, Deregulate, Privatize. Come to us for capital and we will help you reform your economies. Open up domestic markets to foreign investment, roll out the red carpet for the multinationals, remove all the brake pads in order for capital to flow freely.

To whose benefit?

IMF and World Bank

Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank director, illustrates how anybody can claim to be passionate about «helping the people who have less than one dollar a day». But these mammoth institutions are pressuring for reforms that will streamline such markets according to Western standards. And so their intention is not to empower Third World populations but to subject them to a regime where they are denied the right to exploit their own natural resources whilst being burdened with increasing debts.

Governments of Thirld World countries are not free to choose a path that they believe would be good for their people. In the past, leaders who have come in the way of foreign economic interests have had a macabre tendency to end up dead. We remember Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Jaime Roldó of Ecuador, Omar Torrijos of Panama. With the invisible hand of the CIA or of a former colonial power lurking in the background.

As entire populations of poorer countries find themselves eating out of the hand of the IMF and the World Bank, this is the enslavement of our times. Liberalization, deregulation, privatization have become synonymous with neo-slavery. And there are penalties to be paid for those who struggle not to be trapped in this system.

When greed threatens our future pensions or the college funds of our children, we feel compelled to react. But who will stand up for other people’s right to choose their own direction?

Oct 16

by Miriam Garvi

The other night I watched a disturbing documentary by French freelance journalist Marie-Monique Robin on the Monsanto corporation, one of the global leaders in plant biotechnology: Le Monde selon Monsanto, or in English The World according to Monsanto.

Le monde selon Monsanto

This documentary invites us into the the world of genetically modified organisms, where the agricultural technology corporation able to lobby its patented products out onto the market is building a solid and prosperous basis for controlling world agriculture. It is a world where the treasures of nature are being crowded out by a small kernel of patented seed varieties designed for large-scale monoculture.

Now, a visit to Monsanto’s web site should quench whatever fears we might have that this corporation would abuse its dominant position. This, so Monsanto claims, is a corporation that cares, that pledges to make the world a better place for future generations. That values civilized ideals of health and safety, honesty and integrity, respect and transparency.

Monsanto’s pledge

Incidentally, these professed values do not tally with the corporation’s strategy of growth and control, which is securing lucrative royalty revenues at the expense of biodiversity and of the autonomy of farmers-turned-stewards bound to their supplier of seeds and fertilizers by strict legal agreements.

The world according to Monsanto and its likes is a streamlined society where people are made dependent for their living on the access to patent-controlled resources. In their battle for ownership and rights to the life-giving seeds that control world food production, such corporations make the gorilla game look like the amateur league.

Is this the future we want for our children?

Oct 2

by Miriam Garvi

Since his speech in Davos last January, Bill Gates has been receiving accolades for launching his version of capitalism, which he has labeled «creative capital».

Creative capital à la Bill Gates (“Microsoft”) is a wonderland vision where global corporations satisfy their hunger for new markets by introducing technology to the poor, making everyone prosperous in the process. According to Gates, this will generate both profit and recognition, whilst making astonishing headway in the fight against world poverty. An improved variant of corporate social responsibility that we simply cannot do without.

And since the speech, creative capital has been center-stage.

The stage

But beyond the shimmering rhetoric, however, what does his suggestion really mean? Are we to understand that for the first time in history, the profit maximizing agendas of global corporations find themselves in harmony with the needs of the poorest of the poor? That products and services will now be created that can really help people out of their miseries?

Inspired by professor C.K. Prahalad’s fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, Gate’s version of creative capital envisions to reach untapped markets with technological salvation, making the rest of the world dependent on the know-how of those controlling the innovation.

This is not an eradication of poverty through profits, but a strategy for creating the capacity to consume where there would appear to be none. It would seem that our global society welcomes the poor as consumers, as long as they are not empowered.

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