Shareholder advocacy or co-optation
Leonard Chiti SJ (ZAM)
In 2016, I found myself elected delegation leader to two foreign business trips on behalf a huge government corporation with interest in a variety of business sectors. This came about following my appointment to sit on the Board of Directors of the same the corporation.
Leading a business delegation to conduct due diligence with a view towards investing in a commercial undertaking might appear counter-intuitive to my training and formation as an anti-capitalist activist. After all, for a person trained and formed to take the position of the poor in business practices, could this be seen as betraying the very people one purports to work with and for. The option for the poor is a strong Catholic Social teaching and it calls upon anyone interested in promoting social justice to adopt a position representing the poor. Being involved in exploring business opportunities may not at face value appear like opting for the poor.
So what to make of a Catholic priest leading a business delegation on behalf of a private corporation to conduct due diligence for a potential investment opportunity? Does participating in business activities go against principles of the Church Social Teaching, CST? Could this be seen as aligning oneself with the very powers and forces that perpetuate injustice and impoverishment? Could it be that this priest has been co-opted by the system in order to silence him? Before addressing these questions let me first provide a brief background to my work thus far.
Training and formation versus anti-neo-liberalism
While in the novitiate, I expressed interest to my provincial then that I wanted to be involved in the work of promoting social justice. My provincial agreed with me and advised me to start preparing early for this kind of work. This involved in the early stages selecting courses at philosophy and theology levels that could help me prepare adequately for this mission. In regency, I was assigned to a social centre as part of the process of formation to meet the same goal of preparation for work in the social justice area. Shortly after my ordination, I pursued post graduate studies in development studies at a university renowned for its 'opposition' to neo-liberalism.
Throughout all these stages of professional training and Jesuit formation I adopted an anti-neoliberal stance as a point of departure in terms of inserting myself in the world of promoting social justice. Neo-liberal economic policies promote minimal government involvement in economic activities in order to promote market forces to drive an economy. This typically involves de-regulation of markets, decontrol of prices, privatization of state owned enterprises and similar policies that create an enabling environment for business to thrive.
At the time it was quite fashionable for Jesuits in many parts of the world to rail against globalization and participate in meetings and seminars aimed to denouncing globalization. Part of the motivation came from the adverse impact of neo-liberal economic policies supported by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United States Treasury department (the so-called Washington Consensus). In many parts of the world where these rafts of policies were implemented, ordinary citizens experienced job losses and difficulties to access basic goods and services that would enable them lead a decent life.
I attended meetings such as the World Social Forum a couple of times to identify myself and add my voice to anti-capitalist forces. So by training and work I am an anti-neoliberal activist. Since returning to my country, Zambia, I have been working at our social centre, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, JCTR, whose remit is to work for the uplifting of living standards of the people of Zambia by supporting government policies that lift people out of poverty and opposing those policies that keep people in poverty. Against this background it is assumed that neoliberal economic policies perpetuate human suffering and keep people in poverty because their motivation is the maximization of profits. So how come I found myself 'promoting' the same agenda that I was trained to oppose? The answer is not so straightforward. Here below I provide some reasons behind my involvement in what would appear a neo-liberal agenda.
At a recent seminar on Catholic Social Teaching held in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the presenters reminded us that the market - that great symbol of neo-liberalism - is a good servant but a bad master. This implies that neo-liberalism is not entirely evil or bad but that there are good elements in the system that can be redeemed and put to good use to create wealth and distribute it equitably. Further, we were reminded that when Adam Smith presented his view of capitalism he assumed that a methodological individualism would operate in a moral system that will check the excesses associated with a pursuit for profit under a liberal economic system. Such an ethical or moral system implied consideration for the common good and what we would today refer to as a preferential option for the poor. However, the course of time normative and moral consideration were taken out of economic activities and relegated to the religious realm. It is important therefore to provide some normative guidelines in the conduct of economic actors bent on maximizing profit, in order to ensure that the wealth created from their endeavours are ultimately distributed equitably for the benefits of a larger section of society. Moreover, as we have often been reminded, the State has a key role to play in the promotion of the common good and should besides providing an enabling environment for business ensure that the benefits of rational economic agents acting out of selfish interest accrue to all and sundry. This now brings me to the point where I attempt to respond to the questions posed at the beginning of this article.
Several years ago at the beginning of my time at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, JCTR, I attended a workshop on advocacy. Advocacy forms an important function in a mission of the 'service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement' (GC 32 decree 4). At the heart of advocacy is the desire to change 'less human conditions... to more human conditions'. Often times the understanding of advocacy has been limited to public campaigns, presentation of petitions, use of information, education and communication (IEC) materials such as brochures, pamphlets, etc. Other forms of advocacy frequently used by advocacy groups include dialogue, lobbying, and some extreme cases litigation.
The facilitator of the workshop identified a number of ways advocacy can be carried out. Many of us are familiar with the aforementioned advocacy methods commonly employed by many advocacy groups world over.
The JCTR and many other civil society organisations in Zambia have over the years employed the methods highlighted above to varying degrees of success. I have taken part in many of these advocacy campaigns.
Other forms of advocacy involve dialogue with parties that have the power to bring about change. At the said workshop attended by many Jesuits from Africa, South Asia and Asia Pacific we all agreed that we should explore the possibilities of engaging corporate entities with a view towards influencing business decisions to the benefit of vulnerable and marginalized groups. We all committed ourselves towards interfacing with the powerful stakeholders on behalf of the people.
This form of advocacy is not so common but is quite legitimate and can be effective. It sometimes takes the form of buying enough shares in a private business entity and being in a positon to attend annual general meetings corporates. I hear it has been practiced before by Jesuits in some parts of the world. It could even involve sitting on the board of such an outfit. This is with a view towards influencing the decisions of such an outfit in favour of social justice and equity.
It is with the above in mind that I accepted to sit on the Board of one of the potentially powerful vehicles that could contribute towards poverty reduction in Zambia. I believe I am in position to influence business decisions to take into account normative and moral questions. I have found that in my interaction with successful businessmen who sit on the same board I can help them include social justice and equity issues in business dealings. In fact, one of the members of the Board is a very good Catholic and we frequently find ourselves discussing our faith and how we can use it to influence the work of this body. I hope I can help him appreciate the role of the Catholic Social teaching in shaping one's position and perspective on business practices.
Clearly, it is too early to tell if my efforts will yield the desired outcomes. At the very least, we in Zambia have an opportunity to sit down with captains of our industries and help them be sensitive to the needs of their less fortunate brothers and sisters. I hope we can indeed shape our 'market' to be an instrument of the "promotion of justice" in Zambia so that we can all enjoy the wealth of our country, which has been bequeathed to us by God our Creator who intended that all earthly goods will have a universal destination.