Sunday, June 09, 2013

Fes Forum - Second Session on the Role of Global Markets

The theme of Sunday's Fes Forum focused on the practical issue of the role that business and the markets play on the world stage. It posed the question, can financial markets be made to work in harmony for the global good?

Professor Katherine Marshall

Co-moderator of the Fes Forum, Katherine Marshall, summed up the debate by asking if it is possible to have a world of fairness, where competition is also an essential force? "It's a paradox not easily overcome," she said.

Ms Marshall is a professor at Georgetown University in the United States. She has been involved throughout her career in the reduction of poverty and social justice, particularly with the World Bank.

"We need both," she said. "Competition is about excellence, but competition also leaves people behind."

"It's about finding the balance; about shared growth."

Ms Marshall pointed out that without growth there would be no jobs, or money for education or health, or the opportunity to enjoy cultural riches. "How one deals with that harmonising force is vitally important."

Ms Marshall said that overcoming poverty was the main challenge to the human race in the 21st century. It is possible to overcome it, she said, citing the example of Singapore. "It used to be a dump, a swamp, and was considered hopeless. Now it has the lowest infant mortality and is a green, prosperous nation."

She cited the Millenium Development Goals as defining what is needed to work towards ending poverty.

Gunnar Stalsett, Bishop Emeritus of Oslo, was a keynote speaker at the Forum. Mr Stalsett is also President of the European Council of Religious Leaders, Co-President of the International Conference for Peace, and a member of the Nobel Committee for Peace.

In answering the question, can financial markets be made to work in harmony for the global good, Rev. Stalsett said that "the market is a mechanism; neither good nor bad. It is amoral.

"It's the people who use the market who have control; who are responsible." 

He cited the recent example of the factory fire in Bangladesh, where more than 1,000 garment workers were killed, and how that tragedy had drawn attention to the plight of the millions of women who are exploited in the garment industry. "Ten hours a day, six days a week, and they receive $30 a month, which is below the poverty line," he said.

Rev. Gunnar Stalsett 
Rev. Stalsett said that it was the individual consumer who had the responsibility to change their behaviour. "It's not the system that is responsible; it's individuals. We as consumers need to say to the brand owners that we will only use their products if certain conditions are imposed...Economic, social and cultural rights are essential to human rights."

Rev. Stalsett also spoke of future global challenges, including the importance of recognising the spiritual dimension of human existence and pluralism as an experience of richness, not a threat. He said the theme of the opening night's concert at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, "my religion is love", was particularly apt. He said loving and respecting oneself was essential to human dignity, and that, "It is not possible to say you will honour God and to hate or exploit your neighbour."

Summary: Are solidarity and harmony possible through the world of finance?

by Professor Katherine Marshall

Faouzi Skali: introduction; Katherine Marshall, Summary of June 8

Panel: Fahd Yata, moderator:
Ali Benmakhlouf, Pierre Lecocq, Katherine Marshall, Bishop Gunnar Stalsett

The focus of Sunday’s discussion was the ethics of finance. More broadly, it touched on the entire world of business, large and small. The spark for this discussion was small, local, community driven enterprise and inspirational examples of its beneficial effects. However, the discussion ranged widely, from the very global to the very local. Participants brought their experience, positive and negative, to the core question of whether business can indeed be conducted in solidarity, and ethically. The question of what that means in practice is on the agenda for the future.

The discussion was framed within two larger challenges. The first reflects a paradox that echoed the deep paradoxes emerging from Saturday’s discussion about common values and pluralism. This paradox pits solidarity in contrast to competition. There are tensions, in intellectual debates as well as in practical affairs, between the social, spiritual ideals of solidarity and harmony and the thrust of competition and the search for excellence and results that are the daily reality of business life. We need both, but above all a balance that acknowledges cooperation and interconnection but also recognizes and appreciates the animal spirit in business, its energy and creativity.

The second challenge is to keep the essential goal of fighting poverty at the center of the debate. The marginalized, the billions left behind, truly behind, must never be forgotten. A society can be understood, and judged, by how it treats its most vulnerable members. In reflecting on systems and ethics, the question of how to rebalance, to assure a decent life for all, emerges as the ethical challenge for this generation. That is because, for the first time in human history we have the means and knowledge to end poverty. Poverty is no longer inevitable. With this power to bring change comes the responsibility to act. But we caught a glimpse in the discussions of the raging debates about the “hows” of ending the injustice and pain of poverty, the inexcusable tragedies of preventable deaths of children and poor people.

The worlds of spirituality, religion, and business, argued Bishop Stalsett, traditionally apart, are connected in many ways: spiritual, ethical, social, and cultural. The fundamental golden rule, which is common to all religions, holds that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves. This inspiration and guide applies in force to the pragmatic, earthly questions around business. Stalsett spoke to the creative power of religion to respond to daily challenges, but above all he insisted that its main call upon us is to promote a culture of peace. Peace means not only the absence of violence and war but also jobs, education, and health. The core principles of human rights speak to our shared fragility and vulnerability and thus to fundamental ideas of justice and fairness.

Pierre Lecocq brought the discussion to the larger plane of business, state, and society. He spoke to the conflicts and complementarity of business competition and the ethics that are part of belief and faith. Leading a large network of Christian business leaders, he pointed to solidarity as a core value. But he cautioned against overburdening business. Finance is an instrument, above all a vehicle for managing risk. The new technologies and techniques like microfinance and crowd financing, offer rich potential and an outlet for many good intentions and transfers of resources. But for broader social goals it is government and citizens who must take responsibility.

The ethics of markets was a theme woven through the day’s discussion, set against the clear common message that markets in themselves have no ethical obligations or character. We must, rather, look to the people who decide and who apply the rules. The market is a mechanism, entirely amoral. The obligation is to make morally good use of the market, and simply to banish the very notion that we can “leave it to the market”. Recent disasters in Bangladesh and Cambodia attest to the folly of such a path. The challenge is to make markets work for the global good, and that opens wide avenues for reflection and action. That involves ethics and the values of societies, but it also involves laws. There, the fragmentation and overlaps within international systems are an important threat.

Mohamed Kabbaj and Faouzi Skali joined the debate about the significance of solidarity, focusing on the lessons that Islam, both its theology and its lived reality, has to offer. The principles of Islamic finance, with its emphasis on shared risk and balance, need to be part of the creative effort to recapture the ethical foundations of business and financial systems. And Zakat also offered a powerful tool for an ethical approach to equity and even redistribution.

Questions raised touched on the challenges and power offered by micro enterprise and small business, poverty focused investment, the strengths and weaknesses of microcredit, frustrations involved in battling regulations and contending with the imbalances in international systems, practical and ethical dimensions of training of business leaders, arts management and lessons it may offer for resilience, unemployment realities, the roles of women, the core objectives of education systems, and the nature of the knowledge economy and its impact on a region like Fes. These questions reflected keen interest in the topics at hand, a rich trove of experience to tap, and widely diverging perspectives: the proverbial elephant that Rumi described, perceived so differently by different individuals yet the same beast. Once again, we saw the paradox of unity and diversity.

The concluding discussions returned to the core insight that economic policy and ethics cannot and must not be separated, that we must bring our values, openly and explicitly, to these debates. These ethical values apply for each individual in the conduct of their lives, as consumers, citizens, and business leaders. They also apply for the elites who are a vital factor in the success and failure of societies. The time has come to stop the search for someone to blame, the Forum was advised, but rather to act on our values and to work for solutions.

Story and photos: Suzanna Clarke

Fes Forum Monday June 10 at Musée Batha

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