Eco-Living Magazine

Talk of Distant Crises from Atop Our Thrones

Posted on the 20 March 2013 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev

I spent last weekend participating in a spectacularly ironic affair. Graduate students from all over the country got together to share ideas about how to solve one of the more devastating problems that exist in the world today as part of Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative Hult Case Challenge. We were given the task of ‘solving’ hunger in urban slums, asked to design a social venture that could reach the 200 million malnourished souls suffering in densely populated metropolitan districts of developing countries. I diagnose the initial irony of the event in its presentation. It literally dripped with irony; we spent the days munching on buffets of La Boulange delicacies, washing them down with good wine, throwing away the leftovers while chatting casually with other teams about their projects and shaking our heads in disapproval at the tragedy of hunger abroad. We talked about solutions to the direst of extreme circumstances, without questioning the impact that participating in the other extreme has on the problem as a whole.

We were asked to address hunger in some of the most impoverished regions of the world with a sustainable business model. Sustainability in this context refers to the profit potential of the venture to make back initial capital investment, and to continue growing after the payback period.  Some controversial questions blinked into existence almost immediately after we received the prompt months ago, questions like: Can business be good, Can growth-based business be truly sustainable, and How ethical is it to devise ways to make money off of the poorest people in the world, even if the goal is to help them? Answering these questions wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now; such questions are asked over and over in different contexts, without receipt of concrete answers because of their subjective nature and the existence of competitive interests involved in debates.

It’s important for the luckiest in the world to care about problems outside of the realm of their own experience, because you need money to solve today’s big problems. Social inequity, the root cause of massive hunger, accordingly stems from a lack of money- reiterating the importance of willingness by those not experiencing these problems on a personal level to step up and face them if they are ever to be solved. The goal of the weekend was, thus, of the worthiest. Exhibits of compassion and empathy are important reminders that although hypocrisy may exist in the methods, we’re not blind to the suffering of the world. But it was difficult not to let the irony taint the meaning of such efforts.

How honorable is it to gather bright minds in search of solutions to such an injustice, without asking them to examine the role their lifestyles may play in propagating the inequity at its root? I don’t propose that all must be reduced to the suffering of the most beleaguered in the world in order for an ethical outcome to be reached, but can we truly address issues of social inequity without addressing the role that the developed world’s luckiest play in shunning the negative externalities of lavish living onto the financially underrepresented?

My team was composed greatly of people in disagreement with some of the core beliefs that have led to problems such as widespread hunger. Being so, proposing a business-model solution for facing hunger in the most underserved places in the world became a sort of moral dilemma for my team. When we were given this undeniably imperialistic and unrealistic task, we chose to step back and ask not what the practical fix in the short term may be, but why the problem came to be. Our solution, which represented an effort to tackle the inequity at the root of the problem was not surprisingly rejected. It was, perhaps, too ‘visionary’, particularly in its attempt to address some of the environmentally damaging conditions that tend to co-exist with extreme poverty. But in the wake of rejection was the realization that environmentalists can be often inhibited by our unwillingness to work within the rules of a machine that we ultimately oppose. To make change happen, a solution must fit into the frameworks that our infrastructures are built upon.

We fell quite short of winning the competition, but left feeling proud that we had chosen not to sacrifice our moral stance for a win. We pondered the value in choosing not to propose a solution more appropriate for the for-profit business audience, considering that ours would ultimately be ignored. Our conclusion sounded something like this: It’s not always productive to play by your own rules. But when the rule maker is an influential force, perhaps the message you send by sticking to your guns will influence how the rules are set, next time around.

Find people that believe in shared visions, even if the routes toward them through the tumbleweeds of society seem impossible to navigate. Stand up for these visions, even in venues where they seem preposterous. If proposing a business solution to a problem that stems from inequitable global business practice feels wrong, propose something that feels right. It might be rejected, as ours was, but perhaps the messages you stand for will stick in the minds of those more willing to operate within the framework of the setting.

RSS Feed

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog