A question of values

Inclusive Economy04 Dec 2013Lalith Gunaratne

It is crucial to strike a balance between respect for local communities and the shared value of the enterprise.

In the 1980s, I was involved in a business venture selling solar electricity systems to off-grid rural homes in Sri Lanka’s agricultural communities. Electric light enabled households to rid of the harmful kerosene lamp and their next purchase was a 12-volt black and white TV. The TV opened up new possibilities, tempting them with the consumerist world. As mobile phones and internet connects developing world rural communities to the rest of the world, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ vision has become a reality.1

Yet, most of these communities cannot afford what is on offer in the commercial world, leaving them frustrated and dismayed. This creates conflict and instability, as the very technology that is connecting the world creates a dissonance through failed expectations.

There is an opportunity to alleviate this divide with authentic community engagement and inclusion based on mutual respect when big business arrives in rural areas to develop mines or large agri-based ventures. It is crucial then to strike a balance, being sensitive to respect local communities, cultures and traditions, yet provide a dignified livelihood through shared value of the enterprise.

Therefore, policy-makers, politicians and donor agencies moving away from treating rural people as commodities that require economic development towards seeing them as human beings with feelings and needs, will also encourage business to act accordingly.

This shift is happening for two reasons:

Better informed and assertive, rural and indigenous communities are demanding inclusion in the development process to become a part of the mainstream economy. Second, governments, corporations and donor agencies are under pressure and scrutiny from media and civil society for their failure to solve major global problems of poverty, development and the environment. Rethinking development pushes for a more values based approach – acknowledging people’s humanity and aspirations.

Aboriginal Dene leader Stephen Kakfwi, former Premier of Canada’s North-West Territories, said in his speech at the 2012 McGill University conference, ‘Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development: Toward a Framework for Resource Extraction Industries’: “Do not come from the South and tell us we are encroaching on your land and throw us out to extract the gold and diamonds underneath – this is our land that we have looked after for thousands of years”. He also said that most Aboriginal communities are not looking to separate from Canada or stop economic development, but instead simply ask for respect for who they are, their culture and traditions. In Canada, this call is beginning to be heeded.

Policy-makers and political leaders are also realizing that rural and aboriginal communities around the world, being entwined with nature, living off the land, dependent on water, soil, climate and a community of cooperation – an antithesis to the urban consumerist world – may have a recipe for saving the environment and making the world more sustainable. Valuing this contribution to sustainability will make it easier to include rural communities in development, as they will remain to check on the negative social and environmental impacts.

For instance, an inclusive partnership and a voice for an indigenous community in a mining development will ensure that their traditions and culture, interconnected with the natural environment, are protected and balanced with economic well-being.

Our planet is fortunate that aboriginal and rural communities remain on these lands, living close to nature, acting as a buffer to balance development and destruction, as their survival depends on the environment. As corporations accept this and change the way they do business, they may contribute to reducing the economic divide in the world.

“Failure to generate a more equitable and sustainable form of growth comes at a high cost, especially in today’s world of heightened expectations”, states Joseph Ingram, president of the North South Institute. As history has shown, with almost biblical consistency, any growth model that does not properly address growing inequality will ultimately force a crisis of legitimacy and an erosion of trust. Professor Joseph Stiglitz also reminds us: “We have explained how the long-term success of any country requires social cohesion. (…) When the social contract gets broken, social cohesion quickly erodes”.2

On 30 May 2013, the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released the report, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development,” presenting a universal agenda to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, and deliver on the promise of sustainable development. Out of the five big transformative shifts the report calls for, the first, ‘Leave No One Behind’ states: “We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied basic economic opportunities and human rights.”

Rules of engagement have changed with indigenous and rural host communities too, as not including them in the process increases business risks. As Lau Masha, former Tanzanian Minister of Home Affairs, said at the same McGill University conference on partnerships in 2012: “Building walls around compounds and having armed guards to protect management is not sustainable”, referring to the Canadian mining company dealing with a host of community engagement issues at the North Mara gold mine.

This and other conflicts between high profile mining companies and local communities reported in the media illustrate the importance for business to obtain social license to operate by sharing value. It can only be possible through inclusion – authentic engagement, building enduring relationships characterized by mutual respect, trust, active partnership, and a long-term commitment with host communities. This will help balance economic development by preserving nature and an acceptable quality of life for people.

Governments and corporations can no longer chase away communities and keep the spoils of the land for themselves and their shareholders. Not doing the right thing by including communities as partners in a well-connected world is fraught with huge business risks. They have to align with the communities and share value for mutual benefit based on the simple human value of respect. When governments and business align along these lines, we may reach the goal of leaving no one behind.


  1. McLuhan, Marshall (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.
  2. Stiglitz, Joseph E. (2012), The price of inequality. How today’s divided society endangers our future. W. W. Norton & Company.