Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tears are in your eyes

I'm working right now in connection with AMG International, the organization my parents were missionaries with when I was a child, on a project driven partly from my desire to better the world, a desire born of my time spent in Bangkok and Manila. I remember driving past “Smokey Mountain,” the towering pile of garbage that housed thousands of families, on my way to the airport in Manila. That was when I was on my way home to Bangkok, home for Christmas or fall break, to spend two or three weeks with my family before coming back to boarding school. My earliest awareness was of being surrounded by constant poverty, fully aware of the presence of suffering in human life.

Clean water is clearly one of world's foremost development problems, and Vestergaard-Frandsen, the organization AMG is partnered with, operates under the principle of profit with a purpose. It's an interesting financial model, one I've worked on before, at Opportunity International, which when I was there was working on a project to open the first for-profit bank aimed at the poor, the Opportunity Microfinance Bank. These are beautiful financial models for those in favor of pure capitalism, that a profit motive doesn't have to be soulless.

It reminds me of this quote I heard (and quoted—it bears repeating) last month from Ana Martino, a New Zealand activist: “We have to reassess the fundamental structure of the modern market, rather than trying to fit all unpaid and informal labor into the existing market parameters. Now the process of reassessing those structures should seek to move the conversation away from classical economic examinations of selfishness, scarcity, competition, and efficiency, and towards examinations of necessity, surplus, consumption, and community.”

I heard a similar idea from Gar Alperovitz, a political economist who wants a new economic paradigm. “There is an emerging 'new economy,'” he says, “which empowers communities and workers, not corporations.” Keep in mind that these communities and workers will still be making money, be for-profit enterprises, but they'll be making that money for themselves. In such models, management would make about five times the average worker's salary, instead of 343 times as much, as at the nation's largest companies, according to CNNMoney.

He speaks of new for-profit community models, where workers take over a specific industry, say, towel-washing for a large hospital, and themselves share the profits for an environmentally sound and locally sourced business model. I can see such things blooming, see rows of attached greenhouses connected to schools, see carpenter's shops and musician's guilds, see the whole medieval village of my dreams, but functional, with each part fitting into the next.

And Lifestraw could be part of that, if only in the largest possible sense, which is of bringing basic services to those whose biggest health concern is diarrhea. My favorite product is LifeStraw Family, which offers water cooler style water for easy access. And if we can fund clean water, using the best practices of capitalism, then why wouldn't we?

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