Balkan Log Begun

The last few weeks I’ve been toying with the idea of keeping some sort of diary about preparations for my trip to the Balkans and my feelings and impressions as I prepare for the trip.  In fact, somebody urged me to do this a few weeks ago, and, although I thought it was a good idea, I didn’t actually take any action.  I kept feeling as if I’d missed so much time for which I hadn’t been capturing these thoughts that it made no sense to start.  This reminds me of long time ago, when I wanted to save matchbooks from different hotels, given how many hotels I had already been to, only to talk myself out of it because I had already been to so many hotels for which I hadn’t had matchbooks.  Nevertheless, I also knew that the longer I put this off, because of the matchbooks I hadn’t saved, the less inclined I would be to ever start the collection.

Here I sit, or stand (I am dictating this) in the loft of my house on the 28th of April 2007 at 6:46 p.m.–and I have resolved to begin this blog today because there’s still so much I could capture.  I had an interesting thing that happened to me on Friday when I had a conversation on the telephone with someone from USAID.  I had been introduced to by a friend, after sending them my update on the Balkan trip.

I should’ve known right from the start that the USAID worker was a particular type of American.  He seemed to begin every e-mail with a similar phrase like, “greetings from warm Warsaw”, or “hello from sunny Ljubljana”.  After the third or fourth e-mail like this I should have been somewhat suspicious.  I was finally able to arrange a telephone conversation for yesterday in the morning.  I mentioned briefly, what I was up to, and there followed a long pause on the phone.  “Look Rod, let me be direct with you,” he said, “what precisely is the purpose of the trip?” or words to that effect.  I then reassured him that I was trying to be helpful, that I was open to learning something.  I would try to do whatever I could for the region and for companies and people in the region.  “My main purpose”, I tried to assure him, “was to learn, to help them and in the words of Paddy Ashdown to have a bit of an adventure.”  He paused and then said something like, “Look Rod, and forgive me for being so frank, but I’m not gonna waste my time or the time of people down there on what is basically a bit of a fact-finding mission.”  He then went on at great length to tell me how difficult it was to work with “the people down there” how challenging it was to get anything done, how useless they were in following up or taking action and how he therefore could not possibly take the time on something that quote was not going to lead to “something concrete”.  He then carried on for a few more minutes to tell me how busy he was, how small his team was, how much he is trying to get done and how much they have done.  I found this curious for somebody who told me how busy he was.  He then gave me a few names from a couple of research institutes, and I thanked him for his time.

The simple truth is that somebody like this particular USAID worker is just a bit of an asshole, and that in life one has no choice but to come across, self-important “know-it-alls” like this.  I shudder to think what it’s like for people who have to work with him.  On the one hand, they need the skills, resources, expertise and contacts that guys like this can muster.  On the other hand, dealing with him and his condescending ways must be an unbearable burden for the people of the region– especially after all they’ve been through.

Nevertheless, it is a useful case when illustrating one of the great problems I’ve had since I can see this trip at the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007.  That is, it is very difficult to pitch things correctly.  It’s hard to describe something that is a bit of a self-indulgence, also a fact-finding mission of sorts, as well as a genuinely well-intentioned (at least believe so) effort to help the people in a battered region and to highlight some of the positive endeavours which they themselves are undertaking. Perhaps it will come across as somewhat condescending?  Nevertheless it seems well-nigh impossible to get it right.  Sometimes you get the impression that people genuinely want you to lie about the nature of the trip—to create an expectation which I will then inevitably disappoint–as if I represent a huge investment fund was something like that.  Sometimes people want to assure themselves (and they never really fully assured) that this obnoxious Northern capitalist is just trying to make a big pile of money—as they all are.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s clear that somebody really gets what you’re trying to do–wonderful people like Jeremy Condor and the people he is introduced me to; Alma Masic or Valentin Mitev and others.  When you are introduced to come across people like this it makes the preparations I have undertaken really exciting.  And yes, it reassures me that the best of the human spirit still exists.  Even in, and in particular in a region that has had more than its fair share of difficulty.

I have to leave soon as I reviewed this first draft it looks like this is going to take some effort.  On the other hand, I also think it looks like it might be worth the effort.  What is clear is that this is turning out to be a marvellous experience.  What is also clear is that it’s an enormous amount of work.  But perhaps that’s as it should be?

When successful social entrepreneurs cash in their chips…

Yesterday I had a delightful lunch with a well-respected journalist.  Somewhere amidst the tagliatelle, the conversation turned to The Body Shop and how my lunch companion felt betrayed by the Roddicks’ decision to sell out to, in her words, “bloody L’Oréal, of all people” (see BBC article ‘Body Shop agrees L’Oreal takeover’).

There followed a fascinating conversation.  I owe her thanks for raising the point and giving me one of those rare opportunities to quote (or mis-quote) a journalist, rather than the other way around.

She felt betrayed by the deal because she had, for years, persistently bought Body Shop products because of what the company stood for, values which she felt would disappear under L’Oréal ownership.  She also felt that L’Oréal was uniquely bad, in part because of its policy on animal testing.  She did not mention its 26% ownership by Nestle, a consistently pilloried company.

I am not an expert on Nestle, L’Oréal or animal testing.  What I believe is that L’Oréal paid what The Body Shop board considered to be an attractive price – I am not aware of any other bidders.  It would be great if we lived in a world where there was a large ethical buyer around to put forward similarly attractive bids for companies like The Body Shop but, alas, we do not.  In fact I cannot think of any large ethical company – certainly not one in a related sector.  Who else could have launched a bid?   A private equity firm perhaps, but they too would eventually exit – would they accept anything less than the highest possible price for their asset?  No!  So the owners could have passed up an attractive offer to maintain their “purity”? But no Board of a listed company can do this.  Our system does not allow for this.

Secondly, Anita Roddick has publicly argued that as part of the L’Oréal empire she is having a positive influence on their practices. I suppose scepticism may be called for – but what if she, and The Body Shop, is changing L’Oréal?  If L’Oréal is as evil as its critics claim, should one not at least try to “convert” it?  Can anybody think of someone better-positioned to adjust L’Oréal’s position than this battle-hardened, resourceful revolutionary?  Given what The Body Shop has done globally to get social and ethical issues incorporated into consumer behaviour, why not give them the benefit of the doubt?

For the sake of full disclosure let me say that I know the Roddicks, have worked with and like them – so perhaps my objectivity is hindered, but who among us is really objective?  Also, there is a bigger point to make here which is getting lost.  We can chuck stones at The Body Shop and the Roddicks, that’s easy (and very good fun), but they have done far more for the social business movement than me and most others.  I worry that in our desire to hold revolutionaries to very high standards (standards which most of us rarely adhere to) we will discourage other from trying.  And if we can indeed advance the social agenda at firms like L’Oréal, even marginally, then such progress needs to be applauded, not picked apart, at least at this early stage.