Seattle pushes women’s rights & private sector to fight poverty

It’s International Human Rights Day and you may be surprised to learn that the modern notion of human rights is little more than half a century old. The universal declaration of human rights was made largely due to the Holocaust, the atrocities of WWII.

Locally, the focus of two leading humanitarian organizations is on advancing women’s rights and finding more effective ways to combine traditional aid and development strategies with a supposedly kinder, gentler and more socially responsive private sector.

It’s the Seattle approach – socially liberal and business friendly, if not economically conservative.

“We are compassionate, creative and outward looking,” Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said at Global Washington’s annual meeting last week. McGinn noted how at the World’s Fair in Seattle some 50 years ago, many predicted we would have flying cars and jet packs when, in fact, today we continue to have poverty, inequity and injustice — here and abroad.

“We care about that and are doing something about it,” he said. “And that’s what it really means to be a city of the future.”

Two meetings last week back up the mayor’s claims. (Sorry I’m a bit late, but I had a family emergency and this is a one-man news operation)

Global Washington, an organization dedicated to building up the region’s burgeoning humanitarian and social enterprise community, held its annual meeting with an opening keynote talk by Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, an activist and educator who is promoting women’s rights and childhood education in Afghanistan despite threats against her life.

Sakena Yacoobi, speaking at Global Washington

“I believe education is a key issue to transform life,” said Yacoobi, who described the many obstacles she has faced and what motivates her despite the risks. Women’s and girls’ rights are critical, she said: “Afghanistan will have peace when the women of Afghanistan are leaders.”

After Yacoobi’s speech was a fascinating panel discussion exploring the death of corporate social responsibility and the rise of Globalization 2.0 — a revealing look at the creative, exciting but perhaps somewhat ill-defined nature of our community’s approach to fighting poverty and inequity.

Back to that in a moment. Let’s stick with Seattle’s interest in women’s rights. 

Claudia Paz y Paz

Following on the heels of Global Washington’s Thursday event featuring Yacoobi was the Seattle International Foundation’s Third Annual Women in the World breakfast — featuring the courageous new crime-fighting attorney general of Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz, as well as a number of women activists from around the world.

As this story from Inter Press noted, Paz y Paz is internationally recognized as one of the most powerful — and ‘fearless’ – women in the world. When she started, Paz y Paz said, her priorities were crimes against life and crimes against women. The drug cartels and organized crime were lower priorities, she said.

“But we soon realized there was a link between organized crime and violence against women,” Paz y Paz said. The nature of violence, she said, is that the most disenfranchised members of a community tend to suffer the consequences more — meaning women and children.

Paz y Paz and her colleagues view the fight against violence, all violence, as critical to protecting women’s rights — and vice versa.

At the Seattle International Foundation event, the foundation (which is also a supporter of Humanosphere, in case you hadn’t noticed) announced more than $200,000 in grants to local organizations working to alleviate global poverty and injustice.

Which brings me back to Global Washington’s panel discussion on this year’s theme of “Re-Defining Development: From Silos to Collective Impact.”

Moderated by local philanthropist Bill Clapp (who is co-founder, with his wife Paula, of both Global Washington and the Seattle International Foundation), three experts on humanitarian aid, social enterprise and activism engaged in a discussion — sometimes a debate, though muted and vague as per Pacific Northwest ethics — about the best way to fight global poverty.

At Global Wa 2012: Co-founder Bill Clapp, Oxfam's Ray Offenheiser, Theo Chocolate's Joe Whinney and Amir Dossal of Global Partnerships Forum

Clapp began the discussion by asking each of the panel members to talk about how aid and development is changing, specifically about the role of private corporations and business in the global fight against poverty.

AmirDossal

“Seattle is really at the heart of smart philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and creativity,” said Amir Dossal, of Global Partnerships Forum, an organization which — like many Seattle social entrepreneurs — promotes the idea that responsible business investment is preferable to traditional aid or charity.

“We (in the aid community) should not be adversarial with business,” Dossal said. Yes, he admitted, the earlier attempt at corporate social responsibility was often a fraud and is thankfully a dead concept. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon seeking ways for the private sector to partner with the public sector to fight poverty.

Ray Offenheiser

Oxfam America‘s President Raymond Offenheiser said that sounds good (as did ‘corporate social responsibility’) but the reality is that business investments cannot yet replace the need for foreign aid because some needs will never offer business opportunities.

“”What we’re talking about now is Globalization 2.0,” Offenheiser said. Corporations and the business sector can do a lot of good if they choose to behave in socially responsible ways, he said, but we need to recognize that the marketplace is morally neutral and without some kind of pressure on the private sector it is often the worst practices that prevail.

Simply shifting the rhetorical emphasis to social responsible business, Offenheiser said, has had the impact of further reducing political and public support for foreign aid when it is most desperately needed.

“We’re seeing foreign aid going down, corporate investments overseas going up and inequity is increasing,” he said.

“In the end, what’s going to change things is consumer pressure,” contended Joe Whinney, CEO of Theo Chocolate, a company which charges more for its gourmet chocolate in order to ensure farmers in poor countries have a living wage. “It’s a very simple business model.”

Joe Whinney and Theo Chocolate factory

Theo can make its higher-priced chocolate work in the marketplace because consumers like knowing when they buy this product it supports smallholder farmers and works against the often abusive, slave labor conditions on many cocoa farms in poor countries. The solution to aid and development, he said, is an educated and responsive public that refuses to patronize abusive businesses.

“If you buy a cheaper chocolate  bar, you’ve externalized that cost to poor farmers in Africa,” Whinney said. You’re basically paying to support slave labor, he said.

Getting to a new, more effective public and private partnership that works against poverty and supports human rights, justice and equity begins with all of us recognizing how the world really works, he said. And then acting upon it as individuals.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.