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Teaching poverty, teaching transparency in our business schools

15 August 2013

Impact of agribusiness on the US Midwest landscape, July 2013: drying up of aquifers and riverbeds, rivers not reaching the sea anymore, degraded water quality and ecosystems. Photo credits: P Walpole

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Poverty is a topic not often tackled in business schools.  The challenge today is in our willingness to really teach poverty in our schools of business, to teach how poverty is sustained in a neo-liberal economy, or when this economy has its ups and downs and the poor cannot cope or cannot recover.  Then we are faced with the challenge of developing the theory and practice to change the systems and inspire the capacity for greater equity and opportunity.

Last 14 to 16 July 2013, faculty, deans, and university presidents from Jesuit business schools around the world gathered at the John Cook School of Business, Saint Louis University  in Missouri, USA for “The World Forum: Sustainability and Business Practices.” The occasion was also timed for the annual meetings of the International Association of Jesuit Business Schools and the Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education.

These are not the usual companions I find myself with when I am invited to speak about “Healing A Broken World” and as research director of Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research organization based in the Philippines.

There is a further challenge in business ethics that as institutions, we must practice what we preach, and clearly present the basis for transparency in our grants, investments and donations.  How do we practice and preach transparency in our business schools? Catholic Social Teaching does not teach this, and we need to develop and integrate transparency of our lifestyles within our institutions. We need ourselves to learn what being transparent is, how to live and talk transparency, and then what good living is as against consumerism.

Do we teach the finances and also the psychologically damning human impact of poverty, or do we just teach business management and plans? Do we actually teach how the footprint of poverty and the footprint of carbon are darkening the world?  How economic growth in its present construction is pushing us beyond the boundaries of the one world we have?

This is the social and ecological inseparability of concerns as presented in “Healing A Broken World,” presented to every Jesuit to read at the request of Father General. With this document, the commitment and effort were designed to involve both the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (through Fernando Franco and succeeded by Patxi Alvarez) and the Secretariat for Higher Education of Jesuit colleges and universities (through the late Paul Locatelli and succeeded by Ronald J. Anton and now Michael Garanzini). The two secretariats were convened and a group of Jesuits and lay people, from all the Conferences, worked through their various disciplines to help the Society of Jesus, collaborators, and friends in reaching out to those frontiers where nature and human life are seriously threatened.

Teaching what poverty is does seem to be something what Pope Francis is seeking to live by. In anything he asks from the world, from God’s people, he first asks from the institutions of the hierarchical church.

Wealth generation is a good and is not always acknowledged as a basic element needed in driving development. It is essential, but not for the absolute and personal goal it has become through unmindful consumption and corporate excess that knew no bounds. The greed, and also the demands of investment across the world – that inhuman conditions and suffering must prevail for the sake of immediate economic growth – are unacceptably delusionary.

The struggle of economic development to assert itself at the cost of the human condition and of the sustainability of our natural resources and systems has never been so evident as in the last decade. The reality of social and environmental degradation in the world today demands a new response and a new way of living in the world.

A new way of living can be spelled on the one hand, as basic needs and non-commodification of labour, and on the other, as a change in lifestyle of consumption and need for sustainable practices. This calls for a “new ethics” based on human dignity and integrity of creation, while establishing a global accountability for resource use and labour engagement. This involves personal change in attitudes and commitment, along with seeking right relations in a global world.

Irrigation in a dry landscape draws deeply on aquifers, US Midwest. Photo credits: P Walpole

We are faced with the reality of the world today, not only the problems but the invitation and the challenge to respond sustainably: “We recognize the wounded and broken world and humbly acknowledge our part; yet this is an invitation to respond, to be a healing presence full of care and dignity in places where the truth and joy of life are (otherwise) diminishing.”1 The human condition of suffering and of responsibility very quickly emerges in this reflection of our context and integrity of relations in creation.

A few of the challenges that humbly remind us of the need for deep change include:

  • Consumerism that overtakes lifestyle priorities and diet, creating a disconnect with land, water and life
  • Excessive consumption which is more than twice what our global ecosystem can provide – resulting in an ecological deficit – while distribution of the basics is gravely inadequate for 30 percent of the world
  • Development that is not inclusive of the poor, economically or socially and where human security, peace and ecological sustainability are secondary
  • Prolonged dry and wet seasons that detrimentally affect the culture and livelihood patterns of people
  • The need to find the youth in this call for change as they inherit this world
  • The need for change in attitude, and with a greater awareness, our actions and decisions that affect not only our own sphere of daily living, but the broader environment in our community, region, and beyond.

Catholic Social Teaching says that the ultimate goal we seek is authentic human development. We see people seeking progress, seeking to do more, know more, and be more. When we make a clear act of self-giving and collaboration in seeking to achieve human development for all, there is a genuine context for hope.

When development is sought but occurs at the particular expense of others, this is not the human development that we seek. In integral development, we aspire and strive for “the good of every man and of the whole man.”2 If others continue to suffer poverty, hunger, disease, injustice, we cannot speak of authentic human development.

The world we see today is a world of uneven development and suffering. Where there are situations of underdevelopment, Populorum Progressio says that this lack of development is due to the human person, to a lack of solidarity, and a failure to act in ways that serve the common good.

GC35 acknowledges the important work of structural justice. Though there were some achievements in alleviating poverty and lifting some from below the poverty line, the gap between rich and poor within and across nations is still significant. Globalization, seen from the eyes of those living at the margins, appears to be a force that excludes and exploits, rather than includes and uplifts the poor.3

References:

1. Healing a Broken World, Promotio Iustitiae no 106, September 2011
2. Populorum Progressio (14). Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI promulgated on March 26, 1967
3. General Congregation 35 of the Society of Jesus, Decree 3, no. 25

This text is an excerpt from the presentation “Commitment to Healing a Broken World” last 16 July 2013 during the “The World Forum: Sustainability and Business Practices” at the John Cook School of Business, Saint Louis University in Missouri, USA.

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