Does Commerce Trump Charity?
I spent a very pleasant evening on Friday listening to Chris Packham at a Northumberland Wildlife Trust fundraiser (he’s vice-president of the Wildlife Trusts). He may be 50 now, Packham retains all the enthusiasm, charisma and rebelliousness of the days when I watched him present The Really Wild Show back in the late 80s – and he isn’t afraid to mince his words.
He started his talk with photos he had taken of Siberian tigers in the snow. This took him to the conservation of these beautiful animals and the shocking figures that a tiger is worth $100,000 to the poacher that shoots it, and $300,000 to the guy illegally selling its parts for medicine in China.
He went on to berate what he called “the tiger conservation industry” for hoovering up huge amounts of money, but failing to even slow the decline of the tiger. “The only thing I’ve seen that works is eco-tourism”, he said “You’ve got to make the tiger worth more alive than dead to local people.”
This is something I passionately believe in. In my opinion, much ‘charity’ is at best ineffectual and often makes serious problems worse – in effect when we sign a cheque we are buying a feeling of “having done something”. If you look at international development, the third world countries which are breaking through like India are doing it by entrepreneurialism, not by accepting charitable handouts which can undermine local markets, trapping people in poverty. (If you are interested in this way of thinking, you must read “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by JK Prahalad – and before anybody gets angry, I’m not including disaster relief in this critique).
Bringing it closer to home, when I started in this career, a surprising number of businesses expected to be given environmental advice for “free” – paid for by the taxpayer in other words. For many years this was what I did – delivering projects where the beneficiary wasn’t writing the cheque. Something I noticed early on was that the “free” advice I gave was rarely if ever acted upon, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it was seen as free and wasn’t valued. Thankfully we have largely thrown off the shackles of publicly funded business support and the bulk of Terra Infirma’s turnover is now earned from those who are directly benefiting from our skills, experience and knowledge. We charge them quite a lot of money for this and guess what? Our clients value what we do.
Another great example is the explosion of solar energy in countries which enact feed-in tariffs, creating a market for small generators and undermining the monopolies of the big generators. Those markets are doing more to ramp up renewable energy than virtually any other attempt I can think of.
The free market is by no means perfect, but I believe in working with what we’ve got. The challenge is can you harness markets for good? Can you make ‘good’ financially worthwhile and ‘bad’ expensive?
Photo © BBC