The mistrust in governments and institutions is growing, as today’s economic and political systems struggle to come to terms with the complexities and interdependencies of the 21st century. Is it time to revisit the core values of business, politics and society? Would leadership and decision-making benefit from a reassessment of values?
The Outlook on the Global Agenda 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.
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.
In 2013, let’s put our shoulder to the wheel on the issues where we still have to make progress.
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.
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.
I would like to see leaders challenge themselves and their existing institutions. They need the will and wisdom to make a break with old ways.
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.
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
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.
Insights revealed during discussions on values during the Summit on the Global Agenda 2012:6
- The “invisible hand” is an amazing phenomenon for allocating resources, but without a moral framework that supports trust, the market cannot function.
- A functioning global governance system will not be possible as long as a global moral underpinning is lacking.
- Religion should not have a monopoly on morality. New institutions need to be aligned with a reinvigorated set of values that are inclusive of all stakeholders, including those with little voice.
- Values that hold “the common good” as a critical metric should be aimed for along with decision-making based on how future generations will be impacted. An example is moving from “resource exploitation” to “resource stewardship” as a guiding principle for all consumers, not just companies.
- Regulation and incentives are necessary but not sufficient to a healthy, functioning, market-based society. Values need to be more than theoretical – they are only valuable if they drive behaviour – hence they need to be deeply embedded.
- Role models are needed – leadership is critical to demonstrating values and ethical action.
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For more information on the Summit, please visit www.weforum.org/events/summit-global-agenda-2012.