Archive for the ‘aid’ Category

Tourism as Foreign Aid

A couple of weeks ago, I spent 5 days contributing to the economic wellbeing of a developing nation. To be more specific, I spent 5 days in Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort on the Mayan Riviera. I’m a lucky, lucky man, no doubt. So in what sense does my vacation count as “contributing to the economic wellbeing of a developing nation”?

Now, to be clear, this is a personal example, and so there’s reason for me to worry about the clarity of my own thinking (even now that the margaritas have long-since worn off.) Am I just congratulating myself in order to get past the uncomfortable feeling that many people from affluent nations feel at enjoying luxury while visiting a nation rife with poverty? After all, the tourism industry is often portrayed as one that helps mostly-white Northerners visit places where they pay mostly-brown inhabitants of southern climes to call them “sir” or “ma’am” — with the profits going largely to the mostly-wealthy shareholders of the cruise-line or resort chain.

But is that portrayal of the industry accurate? Let’s take a very rough look at the economics, here.

Let’s say a vacation package — flight plus accommodations at an all-inclusive resort — costs something like $1500 per person, just to pick a round number. Where does the money actually go? Who does it help? By vacationing in Mexico, am I helping Mexicans, or just the shareholders of some American or Canadian corporation?

A big chunk of that $1500, maybe a little less than half, goes to the airline. Aha! Profits for the airlines!

But wait a minute. Profit margins in that industry are razor-thin — in some years, negative! So most of the airline’s half of that $1500 isn’t actually going to shareholders in the form of profits, but is instead going to cover the airline’s costs, including fuel, salaries, etc.

The other half ($750) of the total price goes to the resort. How much of that is profit? One source (a few years old) puts profit margins in the resort industry at about 8%. Let’s be generous and round up to 10%. That means $75 profit, which leaves $675 for various costs — including the cost of food, labour, alcohol, maintenance of buildings, and so on. And it’s a truism of economics that $675 in costs for them is $675 in income for someone else.

And so, overall, only a tiny sliver of the money paid for such a vacation goes to the shareholders of the airline and of the company that owns the resort. Most goes to employees, and suppliers, and employees of suppliers, and so on. About half of that stays in Canada (home of the airline) and almost half stays in Mexico (where the employees and key suppliers of the resort are). By my very rough math, I contributed nearly $700 to the Mexican economy, and more specifically to the income of low-wage Mexicans. And it’s a kind of help I’m very happy to give.

So the questions for discussion: “Is my math at least roughly right?” and “Is this the sort of math those of us who aspire to ethical tourism ought to be doing?” Of course, I’m setting aside for now the environmental impact of such a trip. I’ll leave that for a future blog entry. But at very least, it seems to me that a rough assessment of the economic impact of a vacation is a pretty good starting point.

Business Ethics and the Crisis in Japan

A couple of people have asked me recently about what business ethics issues arise in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. As far as I’ve seen, the media hasn’t paid much attention to business ethics issues, or even on businesses at all, in their coverage of the disaster(s). But certainly there are a number of relevant issues within which appropriate business behaviour is going to be a significant question. Here are a few suggestion of areas in which the study of business ethics might be relevant:

1) The nuclear crisis. Although their role has not been front-and-centre (unlike, for example, the BP oil spill), at least a couple of companies have played a significant role in the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The reactors there were designed by General Electric, who surely face questions about the adequacy of that design and the relevant safeguards. And the plant is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO has been criticized for its handling of the disaster, including its notable lack of transparency. TEPCO also faces a difficult set of questions with regard to the ongoing risks to employees, including those who have vowed “to die if necessary” in order to protect the public from further risk. (For more information, see the wikipedia page about the Fukushima I nuclear accidents.)

2) Disaster relief. There is clearly an opportunity for many companies, both Japanese and foreign, to participate in the disaster relief effort. Whether they have an obligation to do so (i.e., a true corporate social responsibility) is an interesting question, as is the question of the terms on which they should participate. I’ve blogged before about the essential role that credit card companies play in disaster relief by facilitating donations; do credit card companies (and other companies) have an obligation to help out on a not-for-profit basis, or is it OK to make a profit in such situations?

3) Pricing. The topic of price-gouging often arises during and after a natural disaster, though I haven’t heard any reports of this in the wake of the earthquake in Japan. It’s a difficult ethical question. On one hand, companies that engage in true price gouging — preying on the vulnerable in a truly cynical and opportunistic way — are rightly singled out for moral criticism. On the other hand, prices naturally go up in the wake of disaster: picture the additional costs and risks that any company is going to face in trying to get their product into an area affected by an earthquake, a tsunami, and/or a nuclear meltdown.

4) Investment and trade. A major part of Japan’s recovery will depend on investment, both investment by foreign companies in Japan and investment by Japanese companies in the stricken areas of that country. This is clearly less of a concern than it would be in a less-economically developed country (like Haiti, for instance), but it’s still relevant. So the question arises: do companies have an obligation to help Japan rebuild by investing? If a company is, for example, deciding whether to build a new factory in either Japan or another country, should that decision be influenced by the desire to help Japan rebuild?

5) Consumer behaviour. Just as companies have to decide whether to invest in disaster-stricken nations or regions, so do consumers. Do you, as an individual, have any obligation to “buy Japanese,” in order to help rebuild the Japanese economy? Does it matter that Japan is a modern industrialized nation, as opposed to a developing one?

Chilean Miners: What is Rescue Worth?

Happily, rescue crews seem to have made better progress than anticipated toward rescuing 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground since August.

Here’s a recent story giving details, by Alexei Barrionuevo and Christine Hauser writing for the NYT: Drill Reaches Miners in Chile, but Risks Remain

As the rescue proceeds, most of us will (rightly) be focused on the human side of this story, the ordeal those 33 men have gone through. But this story also has an important business- and economic component. Last month, I blogged about whether the trapped miners ought to be paid, and by whom. But another issue is that the rescue effort itself is likely to be exceptionally expensive. What should the companies doing the drilling be paid? Back in April, after a mine collapse in West Virginia, I blogged about the Ethical Obligation to Save Trapped Miners, and pondered the extent of the financial obligations of the mining company and the government in the face of such a disaster. Today, I’d like to look at the question from a different angle. How much should drilling companies involved in such a rescue be charging for their work?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about the actual companies involved.
Brandon Fisher, founder & president of US-based Center Rock Inc., the company that made the drill used, is reported to have nobler motives:

He says the Chilean government is paying for his time and equipment — “that’s the plan anyway.” But he is not at the Mina San Jose for the money. He is there for the miners.

“I don’t know that there’s 10 minutes that you’re out here that you don’t look down there and think, ‘There’s 33 guys 600 feet below our feet,’ ” he said. “Whenever you’re tired, it’s real easy to think, ‘Hey, I’m out here seeing sunlight and breathing fresh air. It’s time to suck it up and get these guys out of here.’ ”

It’s also worth noting that, in fact, this is a competitive arena — there are apparently quite a few companies with relevant capacities, and they’re likely competing with each other to bid for the work. Perhaps they’re even charging less for this high-profile job than they normally would, because it’s good advertising. But let’s set that complication aside for the moment.

So, a thought experiment: what if there were only one company qualified to do the rescue work, or only one company available locally? What should that company charge?

A few quick options:

1. They should charge whatever the market will bear, which would essentially amount to charging the most the Chilean government and/or the mining company involved are willing to pay.

2. They should charge nothing. They should be happy to be involved, and to charge anything would be to put a price on human lives, which is unacceptably exploitative.

3. They should charge just enough to cover their own costs — machinery, fuel, and maybe their own workers’ wages.

4. They should charge exactly the same to drill this hole as they would to drill any other hole of similar size, depth, and complexity. No more (that would be exploitative), and no less (that would be foolish).

Do you favour one of those four? On what grounds? Or can you suggest another principled answer?

Addendum: I found a story that offers the following relevant detail: “Local newspaper La Tercera reported that the rescue efforts, expected to last three to four months, will cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.”

Progressive Garment Factory, or Charity?

What’s the difference between a progressive factory and a charity?

Here’s the story, by Steven Greenhouse, for the NYT: A Factory Defies Stereotypes, but Can It Thrive?

…Ms. Castillo had long dreamed of a bigger, sturdier house, but three months ago something happened that finally made it possible: she landed a job at one of the world’s most unusual garment factories. Industry experts say it is a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage” — in this case, three times the average pay of the country’s apparel workers — and allows workers to join a union without a fight.

“We never had the opportunity to make wages like this before,” says Ms. Castillo, a soft-spoken woman who earns $500 a month. “I feel blessed…”

There’s lots that’s interesting, here, but what most struck me was the similarity between the factory described (which produces apparel under the label “Alta Gracia”) and the controversial (Product) RED campaign. As you may already know, (Product) RED is a project that attempts to leverage consumerism into charity, by donating a small portion of profits from certain consumer goods — RED-branded iPods, for example — to the Global Fund (to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in needy countries). I wrote about RED here and here.

See the similarity? Red asked consumers to pay a premium so that money could be donated to the Global Fund. Alta Gracia asks consumers to pay a premium so that the money can be donated to the company’s workers. In both cases, there’s an attempt to advance a worthy cause (disease prevention on one hand, poverty alleviation on the other) by appealing to affluent consumers via value-laden branding.

Two questions occur to me.

1) Will Alta Gracia be subject to the same kinds of criticisms that (Product) Red has been subjet to? If not, why not?

2) It seems to me that the choice of workers as beneficiaries of the Alta Gracia scheme is but one option. Who are other potential beneficiaries of schemes like this? If RED helps out by donating profits directly to third parties (i.e., via the Global Fund) and if Alta Gracia helps out by donating higher wages to its workers, are there other parallel mechanisms that would work? Here’s an example. What if the company that owns Alta Gracia (Knights Apparel) were publicly-traded (instead of privately-held). And what if it gave shares to poor families, so that they could receive dividends when the company makes a profit? Would that be ethically the same thing? Would people who generally think profit-seeking is evil suddenly think profits are a good thing?

International Trade: Commerce, or Aid?

Early this week I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association, where I gave comments on a very good paper presented by Cristian Dimitriu, entitled “Human rights and development as fair background conditions of international trade.” Basically, the question at issue was whether, in engaging in international trade, it is ethically obligatory for companies to promote human rights. (Note the significance of the word “promote,” here. An obligation to promote human rights is much more demanding than an obligation simply to respect human rights.)

One of the suggestions I offered in my comments was a reminder that commerce, generally, is an adversarial game, and that in adversarial games, we generally have fewer and less-restrictive obligations. Business, like football, is a competitive domain, one in which the normal rules of polite society get relaxed in certain ways. The justification is basically that business, like football, is a game that harnesses competitive behaviour for socially-beneficial purposes. (The clearest enunciation of this view can be found in Joseph Heath’s essay “An Adversarial Ethic for Business or When Sun-Tzu met the Stakeholder” [download the PDF here].) Since international trade is, after all, a kind of commerce, then it’s worth remembering that whatever rules and limits it is subject to are part of the set of rules governing an adversarial game.

But international trade is not, of course, only a kind of commerce. It’s also a part of international relations, and governments engage in trade treaties and set trade policies based on a whole range of ethically-relevant considerations, including national economic interests, friendship (between nations), and a sense of obligation to help other, poorer, nations to build their own economies. Consider, for example, the fact that trade policy is one tool governments have at their disposal for enacting what they take to be their national obligations in the realm of international development. That is, one way a wealthy nation can help a poorer nation is — instead of sending them cash — to engage in trade with them.

What this suggests is that international trade involves the intersection of two very different games, with different objectives, and very likely subject to different ethical demands. So, this poses an interesting (and I think difficult) question. How should individual businesses navigate this intersection of games? Do businesses have an obligation to go some way towards fulfilling national obligations, or is that (perhaps by definition) solely the obligation of national governments?

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