Are Fiscal Solutions the Be All and End All of Social Change?

July 7, 2008

Deep in the night last night, my partner and I found ourselves watching television. There was  a commercial from some company about their promise to donate $25 to the Salvos Winter Appeal for every heater that is bought.

Initially I smiled. It’s a real sign of the times that so many companies are more aware and proactive about social responsibility. There is a great quote by Anita Roddick, (a big role model for me, Vale Anita!) that goes something along the lines of this: in the past, the church and government have had their times of holding the power, and in that, the responsibility of caring for the social needs of our society. But now, business holds that power, and needs to reflect this in it’s treatment of social and environmental issues.

As I thought more about the ad, and the actions of the company (whilst welcomed, every little bit helps), I wondered whether the current trend for companies to cater for social needs and wants, and tackle such issues, is simply clever marketing. A close relative of ‘green wash’, is it simply a way to placate and entice customers who instinctively feel guilty about their consumerism? A way of counteracting social awareness, rather than encouraging it?

As a former employee as a corporate social responsibility officer for a large company, I know that the bottom line is still the highest priority. Is social activism and profiteering mutually exclusive?

I am finding I am digressing from the point I am trying to make, however. This is a topic I will have to revisit at another time.

The point is, the company was trying to help solve the issue of homelessness through monetary donations. The question I raise, is it possible to solve social issues through money alone? Can an injection of cash stop these problems from occurring?

I tend to not think so. Sure, money is needed in the area of homelessness (to use that as an example, but I’m thinking generally here). There is a lack of affordable and appropriate housing for a horrifying amount of people, and the ‘classes’ that this effects appears to be rising (to my mind, because of consumerism once again). A large budget from governmental and corporate finances could build more housing, subsidise this for the poor, fund refuges for those fleeing domestic violence and family breakdown, and so on.

But will money stop the problem? Will people continue to become homeless just because there are finances to deal with the problem once it arises?

What is it, about our society and culture, that creates these problems in the first place? To use the homelessness example again, why is it that families break down so increasingly, and what are our communal beliefs that cause this? Why is it that people will give a homeless man a dollar in the street, but won’t offer to listen to his life story, or take him for a meal (again, I’m generalising, I know there are people who do this). Why do we cross to the other side of the street to avoid him, rather than inviting him to live with us?

I think it is beliefs, and values, that help create these problems. And most importantly, a sense of disconnectedness and lack of responsibility for others in our culture. We are a highly individualistic culture, and sadly at times, one that does not encourage conscious living and pondering heavier topics like this.

To me, to begin to solve any social problem, you need to start as an individual. Not by your actions, but even closer: via your beliefs. Via the way you see the world, it’s inhabitants, and yourself. To quote Gandhi, to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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