Sarah Smith Symposium addresses globalization and the common good

By Casey N. Cep ’13 M.Div.

How effective are voluntary, nongovernmental associations when it comes to questions of business ethics and corporate governance?

Panel DiscussionAt this year’s Sarah Smith Memorial Symposium on Moral Leadership, Oliver Williams, C.S.C., of Notre Dame praised the value of such associations.  But respondents to his lecture, entitled “Globalization and the Common Good: The Challenge and the Promise,” voiced some reservations.

Williams is one of three directors of the Global Compact Foundation, which supports the United Nations Global Compact, launched in 2000 by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to provide a framework of ethical practices for businesses around the world. In just over a decade, the Global Compact has attracted over 8,700 corporate participants and stakeholders from more than 130 countries. Foundation support for the Global Compact comes in various ways, including: raising awareness, encouraging engagement and partnerships, and fundraising.

Williams spoke extensively about his work with the U.N. and put forward a vision of the common good that includes corporate agents. “Individuals and governments can do much to encourage the common good,” Williams argued, “but increasingly businesses are contributing.”

One way of shaping and promoting those contributions is through voluntary associations like the Global Compact, which helps to establish norms and codes of conduct to be shared across nations and continents. Corporate participants in the Global Compact commit to work toward 10 principles in four key areas: human rights, labor standards, environmental concerns, and anti-corruption efforts.

Offering a brief history of the global economy, Williams emphasized that the rapid wealth creation of the last century was not accompanied by adequate wealth distribution. “Globalization has worked for China, but if you go to Detroit, you’d get a different report,” Williams asserted.

None of the respondents challenged this economic reality, but each drew on their own research in economics, policy, and theology to generate new questions. Williams is no stranger to the conference’s dynamic format, having led a workshop on business ethics during the inaugural Sarah Smith gathering in 2004.

Senior Research Scholar Theodore Malloch, who worked with Williams on a PBS Documentary titled Doing Virtuous Business, questioned the efficacy of the Global Compact. Emphasizing the success of companies like TOMS Shoes, Malloch argued that embedded philanthropic strategies are more successful than “greenwashed” efforts like membership in the Global Compact. Malloch, who worked at the United Nations from 1988 to 1992, also raised serious questions about the role of such international institutions to assist societies and promote equality. 

Shyam Sunder, the James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance at the Yale School of Management, echoed Malloch’s concerns while specifically critiquing the narrowness of discussions of corporate sustainability.

“It’s like cleaning the beaches while a tsunami approaches,” Sunder said of the Global Compact. Without simultaneous discussions of individual responsibility, namely curbing reproduction and consumption, institutional-driven efforts like the Global Compact are doomed to fail, he argued.

Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, applauded Williams for imagining that corporations can be motivated by more than profit. He asked if corporations can be considered moral agents, and linked the conference’s discussions to those at the World Economic Forum, which was to begin the next day in Davos, Switz.

Following these prepared responses and a rebuttal from Williams, the four participants together fielded questions from the audience, which included students, faculty, and others. Facilitated by Dean Harold Attridge, seven questions were put forward ranging from whether inequality is imported in the global economy to the possibility of global ceilings on wealth accumulation.

Questions also came from members of the Smith family, who attended the event dedicated to the life and ministry of the late Sarah Smith. A lay leader in the United Methodist Church, Smith graduated from YDS in 1991 and served the church through publications, talks, seminars, and retreats around the world. Past Sarah Smith events have brought together speakers on topics in moral leadership including: inequality and poverty, pluralism and public faith, vulnerability and security, as well as trust in an age of suspicion and spin.

Date Posted: Monday, February 6, 2012 - 1:36pm