Sunday, February 27, 2011

Pushing the Elephant in the Room

Addressing an international audience of some of the world’s most influential CEOs, Rose Mapendo recounted her life experience as the recipient of the greatest forms of cruelty dealt at the hands of brutal, violent men. Listening to her presentation beginning with the haunting languid melody of the song of hope and forgiveness, the same one she sang for months as she heard the screams of the dying and the living tortured with physical and sexual abuse, one could not help but be transported to the anguish-filled nightmare of East-Central Africa. At the end of her presentation, the chorus of responses from the audience was singular.

“What can we do?”

When a room full of global industry leaders hear Rose’s impassioned plea for justice and peace and respond with a “what can we do?” impulse, I wonder which part of the orgy of consumer enterprise blinds so many from the recognition that it was the institutions celebrated as idealized titans of industry that are those who maimed, killed, raped, and tortured the very ones whose voices echo in the notes of Rose’s song. Do we ignore the fact that between 1950 and 1989, the U.S. delivered in excess of $1.5 billion in military equipment to the region? Under the sterilized name of Foreign Military Assistance – a code name for our subsidizing of U.S. defense contractors’ sales around the world – much of the military hardware came with our own name stamped on the weapons and munitions. And we are not alone. Chinese and European firms, with full knowledge of their ultimate genocidal use, continue to authorize the weaponization of conflicts which serve to distract local communities while their mineral, gem, and energy wealth is stolen.

But, to honor the question Ms. Mapendo asked, “What is the source, not the symptom of our violence?” we must confront a topic that is NOT addressed in sterile gatherings of global business executives. How many of us know the contribution of our own unconsidered consumption which funded the terror meted out to millions? Did we ask ourselves whether the imbalanced concessions provided to Chevron / Congo Gulf provided the liquidity that turned fossil fuels into human extinctions? Did we concern ourselves with the pension funds and investment banks that financed the oil, diamond, and metals businesses whose disproportionate wealth extraction created feudal despotism that erupted into genocide? When did any of us – from London to Toronto to New York to Australia to Hong Kong – actually demand that publicly listed companies in whom we invested report MATERIAL events – including known human rights abuses to local communities and expediency payments (the politically correct term for bribes) to “security” provided by governments or militias?

As the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century faced the dehumanizing pragmatism of the profitability of slavery, in our modern economy, why do we refuse to see that genocide and abuse of human dignity are NOT relics of the past but utilities that give us cheap electronics, energy and extravagant luxuries? In a region with an estimated $26 trillion in energy, metals, agriculture potential, and other materials, why can’t we find any capital market that has the courage to stand up and say that, on our watch, humanity will refuse to create the economic disparities that lead to rebels deciding that shooting husbands and preserving wives, mothers, and daughters for sexual abuse and torture is “a good use of precious commodities like bullets?” With bilateral investment agreements with the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and others, which citizen will stand up and be the voice that turns Rose’s painful lament into a chorus of humanity?

Let’s be clear. We continue to dishonor the plight of the death camp survivors in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rest of the region when we refuse to face the fact that it is OUR inhumanity that fuels genocide. But for the cash supplied by Chevron, Congo Gulf Oil, Citibank, Telecel, Mobil, Group Damseaux, Tabacongo/Rothman, BAT, PLC, and others, violence wouldn’t be directed at the tribal conflict over the single digit percentages of revenues and profits extracted from the region. In countries where foreign investors must invest at least 70 percent of their capital in foreign currency – making local despotism and mercenary arming far more convenient for the agents of death – why can’t we see that our money supply robbed Rose of her husband, her home, and peaceful dreams? When scarcity is manufactured in the face of abundance, violence has ALWAYS been there. We cannot, for one moment, sit back in horror and anesthetize ourselves from the reality that we are the torturer.

When a Chinese gaming company buys a U.S. gaming company for several hundred million dollars, can we see in the fantasy war-game the actual violence that made the graphics processor optimized with metals from the anonymous dead? In a culture of business executives that applauds the miniaturization of genomics processors so that science can automate the synthesis of “life”, can we see that the components that run the computers and sequencers rely on the lives of real humans for whom clean drinking water is a luxury for less than 1 in 12 and where life expectancy is 47 years?

It is time to change the narrative. “Corporate Social Responsibility” is not enough. If we are going to be remembered for anything other than the scourges of immoral and unconsidered consumption, we must practice – and demand from all parties with whom we do business – an accountability that says that profits built on the dehumanization of others are no longer tolerated. And let’s be honest. The only reason why we don’t take the time to inform ourselves about the source of the metals in our iEverythings and mobileApp everything else is because we want to remain blind. In a world which could watch in rapt attention as Egypt collapsed and Libya consumed itself with blood, we don’t want to know that with knowledge comes responsibility. We call it a knowledge economy but we’ve actively chosen a path of ignorance. This must end.

Every stock exchange on the planet must institute a listing requirement requiring every listed company to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in all business practices.

Every securities oversight authority must have a public reporting mechanism to enable transparency provided by local communities directly impacted by the businesses conducted by public companies.

Every public company must be required, at its annual meeting, to have local representation from the workers or landowners of every place where business is conducted.

Every pension fund and investment manager must represent and warrant (at pain of financial and International Criminal Court censure) that it confirms that no funds are used for the use of force to effectuate or optimize the conduct of business.

Too radical?

Tragically, in our present trajectory, the mournful song of a woman in a death camp is likely to join the massive choir of those whose songs have been extinguished until a few of us start singing a “sweeter song”.

Rose named her story “Pushing the Elephant” in honor of the traditional African story that teaches that, to move an elephant, one must act with others because a lone actor cannot push the elephant. I would suggest that Rose’s challenge is infinitely more difficult given our denial of the existence of the elephant.


  1. Larry Alderfer FisherFebruary 27, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    I find myself in a mode of rooting. Not for the home team at least, but rooting nonetheless: for the Egyptians in the streets, the Libyans in the face of guns, the Sudanese in the south, the women and children in refugee camps, the small farmers up against Monsanto around the world... the list is endless. But in the end I should be rooting out structural oppression, honoring my roots in hard working peasant stock and giving heed to the admonition that money is the root of all evil. But ahhhh it is so much less complicated to just root for the underdog, (from a safe distance relatively somewhere near the top of course). How then shall we live?

  2. David-
    Thank you so much for your words! It is crucial to hear these important messages that you consistently send out. It is too important to hear and try to understand people's stories, like Rose's. I find myself so caught up in the day-to-day that I forget how minuscule my issues are. I miss you, and everyone in the office, but I find your words to be a way to hang on to your message and the goals of M-CAM.
    I hope that all is well with everyone,

    Kari Taylor


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave