Can I just start by saying how grateful I am to those who have already spoken at this event. For those who haven’t done it that often before, standing up here is not always the most enjoyable experience! You were absolutely marvellous and I can’t thank you enough for coming along this afternoon and telling us about the experiences you’ve had and what a difference they’ve made to your lives. I hope the business leaders here today have got a glimpse of the kind of difference you can all make.
I really am so glad to see so many of you here today. It’s wonderful that you are all here and that there was in fact an increased number of people going through Seeing is Believing visits last year. Clearly you understand, probably more than many, why all this effort is so important.
Of course, when many of you undertook those visits, we had not started to feel the effects of the financial hurricane which has descended on the economy. That has caused some, including respected commentators, to reject the whole notion of “responsible” business in a time of recession, let alone all the efforts made on sustainability and other possible advances in that field. That so many of you still think it is worthwhile taking the time to come to here today shows that view is not as widely held as some critics might wish.
For you all recognize what those people do not: that, at its essence, responsible business is not about profit or loss (although I am pleased to say that it has benefits on the balance sheet as well!). It is about an understanding that, as individual companies, you have a responsibility to wider society.
“Seeing is Believing” is an essential tool for business leaders, such as yourselves, to understand where and how you can make a real difference; help in kind, or those all important management skills which can make such a huge difference to struggling community enterprises or schools, or mentoring through employee volunteering. All those sorts of things don’t have to involve a large amount of cash. Business leaders say to me how much having the opportunity to see what is happening on the ground helps them understand the effect of their investment decisions.
At the end of last year I was in Halifax reflecting on how the “Seeing is Believing” programme began, during the last major recession in the 1980s when I was first President of Business in the Community – it’s been 24 years now. Halifax, which I suggested, was inspired by a Seeing is Believing I had done in Massachusetts, in an old cotton towns. I was shown round by Mayor Dukakis and I was fascinated by what they had achieved there. I suggested the Mayor of the town came over to Halifax and that started a process going, with a great deal of effort made by companies such as yourselves.
Since this scheme was launched Business in the Community has taken almost seven thousand of you on more than one thousand visits. Last year, I understand, we had six hundred and eighty delegates on visits across the UK. Can I, at this point, express my warmest appreciation to all those Leaders of my National programme, including Princess Badiya, as well as those who led the regional visits? Your efforts make such a fantastic difference, I can assure you. I have known Princess Badiya since she was a child and her willingness to become involved in the way she has is so encouraging, she does a remarkable job. And the numbers of people we have had wanting to help, from within the Muslim community, has been really astonishing.
I am also thrilled to see the growth of the international programme, with visits to both India and Canada. I am delighted that Adine Mees of the Canadian Board for Social Responsibility, of which I am patron, is here with some of her Canadian delegates.
I have asked Business in the Community to develop our Global Partners Network as a matter of some urgency. We need to do more to support our international members wherever they do business and, in the process, create what I hope could be a Global Responsible Business Alliance. The Rainforest Project I started some 18 months ago has demonstrated the enormous value that can be achieved through creating a public, private and NGO partnership to tackle an immense and complicated problem, in this case seeing if it is possible to halt deforestation and provide alternative ways of looking at this enormous problem. I feel that in the future we are going to need even more the involvement of public, private and NGO type of partnerships to deal with huge challenges that the world is going to face.
This global business alliance is, I think, particularly necessary because, in my view, the fragility of the interrelated global economy has been brought into sharp focus by today’s financial and climatic crises. One might well argue that a relentless quest for near-term growth has failed to recognize all the hidden assets and values which are vital to longer term sustainability.
I feel that simple faith in the efficacy of markets and technology has led many to believe that homogenous globalization or westernization is the only way forward for our planet, without giving proper thought to the wider implications of a ‘one size fits all’ approach or the fundamental point that it is simply not possible for everyone to be a winner from this process. While it is, of course, important to recognize that advances in technology have, in some respects, made the world one place and enabled many to establish an immediate, international reach, which would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, it is equally important to recognize that, for many, these developments have little relevance and, at this stage, are of minimal benefit. Globalization has clearly had winners but perhaps we need to reflect more on the losers as well.
If the truth were known, I believe firmly and always have done so, in the possibility of an approach to globalization that sees local adaptation, diversity and specialization as a key to competing globally and successfully, and, in addition, contributing to a more sustainable, durable and resilient world. In other words globalization from the bottom up, that’s how you empower communities, which I still believe is the great secret.
This can only be achieved if business leaders understand those communities, value their diversity, and respect their integrity. “Seeing is Believing” is one way that you can ensure you have that knowledge, so that the power of your companies does not destroy what centuries of culture have created.
I was interested to hear the other day that what we need is more boring banking. What we actually need is a great deal more of the boring elements of life brought back or rediscovered. We need to rediscover elements such as balance and harmony, rediscovering the book of grammar, the art of place making. It is important to understand that the way in which we live defines us, as we are defined by what we do and what we eat.
I’ll give you one example, I went to Jamaica nine years ago on an official visit. One of the places I visited was a slum in Kingston, Rosetown. I am one of those boring people who can’t bear not doing something about the problems I encounter whether it’s here, in the Commonwealth or elsewhere. So for nine years I have been trying to make a difference to the regeneration of that area, through the work of my Foundation for the Built Environment.
I went back there last year and we have made some progress, just by getting involved and sitting down with the locals, by taking the trouble to find out what their problems were. We have been working with the grain of the local culture. The people who live there have been saying that just by the initial work of what has been done the violence between the gangs has declined. We now have change taking place. It is bound to be gradual, but it will make a difference. We need to recreate a place, a place that actually respects people’s culture and ways of life.
So all those who have been on these Seeing is Believing visits have been encouraged to share ingenuity and ambition in replicating practical solutions. They have caused business to think about how they do business locally – identifying local suppliers, investing in local skills, partnering with head teachers like Clive Owen and focusing on raising the achievement and aspirations in local schools.
It seems to me that we now have the challenge of rethinking the way we measure success and the opportunity to redefine how we value the world we live in and reshape the way in which the current model of development must change and develop.
I am hugely grateful to all of you for taking the time to be here today.