The Common Good

Davos: How Will This Crisis Change Us?

Sojomail - January 29, 2009


We in Gaza are 1.5 million people in need of immediate psychotherapy. But the children especially. They have experienced severe trauma. They should cry. They should shout. But the way they are talking about this tragedy, it's not normal.

- Issam Younis, director general of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. At least 280 children were among the 1,300 Palestinians killed in Gaza. Thirteen Israelis died in the war, including three civilians. (Source: The Washington Post)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Davos: How Will This Crisis Change Us?

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In a plenary session titled “The Values behind Market Capitalism” yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I started with this observation:

Every morning when I wake up in Davos, I turn on my television to CNN in my hotel room. And every morning, there is the same reporter interviewing a bundled-up CEO with the snowy “magic mountain” of Davos in the background. The question is always the same: “When will this crisis be over?” They actually have a “white board” where they make the CEO mark his answer: 2009, 2010, 2011, later.

But it’s the wrong question. Of course it’s a question we all want to know the answer to, but there is a much more important one. We should be asking, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the way we think, act, and decide things, how we live, and how we do business? Yes, this is a structural crisis, and one that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis, and one that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things and forgotten some things -- such as our values.

We have trusted in “the invisible hand” to make everything turn out all right, believing that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right and the invisible hand has let go of some things, such as “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And things have spun out of control. Gandhi’s seven deadly social sins seem an accurate diagnosis for some of the causes of this crisis: “politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.”

If we learn nothing from this crisis, all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can even turn out to be redemptive. If we can regain a moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.

Wednesday I attended an extraordinary session here called “Helping Others in a Post-Crisis World.” It was full of the insights of social entrepreneurs and innovative philanthropists, all discussing new patterns of social enterprise -- where capitalism is again in the service of big ideas and big solutions, not just making money. But the session was held in a small room, not a big hall. And it wasn’t full. New ideas of business with a social purpose have surfaced here at Davos before, but, as in the global economy, social conscience is a sidebar to business. Social purposes have become “extracurricular” to business. It’s time for the sidebar to become mainstream and move to the main hall of discussion and to the center of the way we do business.

If we wait until the economic crisis is over to get back to business as usual, we will have missed the chance we now have for re-evaluation and re-direction. Some of the smartest people in the world are assembled here on the mountain. But are we smart enough not to miss the opportunity this crisis provides to change our ways and return to some of our oldest and best values? Almost half the world’s population, 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day -- virtually outside of the global economy. Maybe it's time to bring them in.

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