Saturday, March 31, 2007

Back to people

Originally uploaded by Rotten Jimmy.
“Kivekäs, Walden, Wihuri, Hellberg, Rosenlew, Frenckell, Ahlström, Donner, Wasastjerna, Ehrnrooth, Schauman, Grönblom, Wahlroos, Julin, Björnberg, Rettig, Honkajuuri, Virkkunen, Erkko, Serlachius.”

The chorus of the Stalinist song from the 70s on the richest families of Finland sung with great passion out of tune by Kristiina Halkola popped into my mind today while listening to the debate about corporate social responsibility here at Sabanci University in Istanbul. The second day of the Network Effect paid a great amount of attention to the role of a few rich Turkish business families and their contributions to the society. We went through the richest family of Turkey (Sabanci) founding a private university and the Eczacibasis supporting classical music and founding the Istanbul Modern museum. Some of the participants made highly critical remarks on the paternalistic models of these actions and whether they can substitute gaps left by the government. “It is somehow worrying how the taste of one family can set the principles of modern art in Turkey”, one of the participants observed.

Continental Europeans often tend to ignore the development patterns of their own societies when assessing developments for instance in Turkey. As the list in the Finnish song points out, these families with a few others played a crucial role in the nation-building. And it is not only Finland and Turkey where philantrophy has at some moment stepped in. You get the picture by thinking of surnames like Tate, Rockefeller, Bonnier, Bertelsmann or Wallenberg.

A Swedish journalist quoted a while ago an assessment made by I think The Financial Times that when the 20th century can be considered as the century of the welfare state, the 21st century seems to be the century of philantrophy. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s engagement with the developing world was used as the most powerful argument. If one looks into the European and American history, one could make the statement that we are returning to an old model. As the recent defeats of Social Democrats show across Europe (the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland etc.), the ideal welfare state starts cracking up and someone else is called for rescue. In that sense I am not sure whether it is fair to state that Turkey is behind us in a development or whether they just skipped one step.

Although this development also has worrying consequences (in a philantrophy mode the poor need to stay grateful and obedient and priorities are set based on individual interests), I would also like to see a positive side in all this. It can help in shaking off the “overdeveloped” notion in Western Europe of full dependence on the state and put more emphasis on individuals. We can also revise the stubborn notions of good money and bad money. As we can already see among the younger generations and their consumption patterns, achievements and personal driving forces get more emphasis over hierarchies and classifications.

The issue is not black and white. Business works based on the notion of success whereas democracies should work on the notion of good. We still need both but the shake-up opens a window of opportunity to re-negotiate these positions.

The most important re-realisation of this event for me is the same one as from the Network Effect in Amsterdam. Societies are made of people. Successes are made by people. People are the ones that stimulate and are stimulated. And that the privileged people with connections and skills do have an obligation to share, enable and make things happen.

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