Doing Good, By Doing Bad
Ends never justify means. How one does a thing, is just as important as what one does.
I suppose there are some people who don't agree with this.
In politics, and in life, sometimes it seems OK to tell a white lie, or to tell part of the truth, or to cut an ethical corner. Especially if, after all, it comes out right in the end.
I recall visiting a community in the Philippines some years back. World Vision was funding a project through a local Protestant church. Most of the people in the village were not members of the Protestant church. I was told that attendance at the weekly Bible Studies was compulsory.
I was travelling with a person who was then a member of the World Vision International board and I shared my concern about "compulsory Bible Study" with him.
"Why complain?" he said. "People are coming to the Lord. Does it matter how they got there?"
"Yes. I think it does matter."
In World Vision Australia we not only have a vision of the kinds of things we want to accomplish. We also have core values that guide our behaviour. We have the what and the how. We must honour both in the way we work.
That is why we do not find acceptable the kind of behaviour that is alleged against CARE Australia.
It is not acceptable to cut corners in pursuit of growth. Not even for a task as noble as the alleviation of poverty.
Here at World Vision we do not know much about the truth or otherwise of the things said against CARE over the past few months (although I know everyone has an opinion).
One of the few things we did experience directly was the tendency of CARE to position itself with statements that played with the truth.
For example, "CARE Australia is the only operational Australian agency in Somalia (or some other place)."
The accuracy of such statements depends on careful definition of what it means to be "an Australian agency" and "operational." We have to presume that this statement can only be accurate if it excludes Australian agencies who join cooperatively with non-Australian partners.
As one of the characters in the movie, "Absence of Malice" says, "It is accurate, but it is not the truth."
But why complain? This sort of thing happens in advertising all the time. A partial truth is said. The effect exploits the ignorance of the general public. A different meaning is understood.
In the same vein, we objected recently to TV commercials produced for the Open Family Foundation.
Their ad promoted the lie that poor kids overseas are more favoured than street kids in Australia. It also promoted the lie that the problem with resource allocation in this country is competition between causes.
The ad presented the total government aid budget as if there were a valid relationship with the amount spent on street kids programs. Such is the power of images that this appeared to be a valid comparison in the mind of the viewer, whereas it is clearly dishonest to that small minority of the audience who know the facts.
Similarly, competition between causes is not the basis of poor resource allocation in Australia. The problem is between spending money on ourselves and giving it away. It's the challenge between selfishness and generosity.
The Open Family Foundation ads worked. They succeeded in putting the issue of street kids on the map. And World Vision was an unwilling accomplice in the publicity by offering the impression of inter-agency conflict.
Helping street kids is a noble and worthy cause. But the worthiness of a cause does not justify the way one goes about promoting it.
Finally, lest there be any sense of complacency, let us remind ourselves that we too can fail this test of integrity.
If we are to be faithful to our vision and our values, we must make sure our means are as worthy as our ends.
The Billion Dollar World Vision
A few times recently I have been asked what my personal, long-term vision for World Vision Australia is.
I see World Vision Australia in the future as a billion dollar organisation.
The reason is simple. That is what it will take, if the world gets serious about the business of alleviating poverty.
You see, despite what the Open Family Foundation ads say, eliminating poverty from the face of the earth IS possible.
The world has the resources to do it. It lacks only the political will.
Poverty is not an economic problem: the world has more money than the job requires.
Poverty is not a management problem: we know how the job can be done.
Poverty is a problem of human rights: the world chooses to do nothing about what can be done.
As the Book of Common Prayer confesses, "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done."
Now if we are to do the things we ought to do, in relation to poverty, it will take some substantial organisations to do it.
I hope World Vision Australia will be one of them.
Last week, at a lunch with the heads of ALCOA, Woodside Petroleum, Comalco and the Gas & Fuel Corporation, I put this vision this way:
"I hope I see the day when any one of you would think of coming to World Vision as chief executive as a most natural and significant career step."
Holistic thinking means we act with the whole system in mind. When we squirt underarm deodorant, we are conscious of the impact on the ozone layer, and on the future temperature of the world.
Or, in a more limited way, when we design a marketing campaign here, we try to anticipate the full impact on the people in project communities on the other side of the earth.
This is "system thinking." Acting and taking decisions, while accepting the responsibility for the consequences of those actions and decisions. Whether those consequences are on my desktop, or on the other side of the world.
It's easier to say, than to do. Sometimes the consequences are not obvious.
I read last week of how a lack of systems thinking had impacted on taxation in the United States.
The problem was that the rich were not paying enough taxes.
So tax rates were made "progressive". The highest income earners were paying over 70 cents in the dollar. Or were they?
During the 1980s tax rates were cut for high earners.
Fortune magazine reported this week, "as the top marginal tax rates were lowered from 70% to 33% during the 1980s, the total share of federal taxes paid by the most affluent 5% of all Americans jumped from 35.4% in 1981 to 43.5% a decade later, as the well-off found less reason to hide their earnings from the tax man."
So, when the tax rate went down, the total taxes paid by the rich went up. Not what everyone might expect, without systems thinking.