Red lines, bottom lines, crossing lines and "value" propositions.

by Amanda Harding


I'm in a Paris suburb walking into a company headquarters and am struck by the light, cool clean colours, cleansed air and enormous quantities of giant, magnificent orchids. The art on the walls is strikingly beautiful yet subtle as are the products and company profiles discretely displayed to demonstrate their ethical, value-based qualities. Who wouldn't want to work in such a place of beauty? A site whose very mandate is to create and sell beauty.

A few days later and I'm asked for advice, ideas and contribution to an upcoming major international event, aligned to the Climate Summit and the post-2015 Agenda in New York this September, aiming to attract the great and the good. I'm far far far from the centre of decision making on this one, instantly curious, even jealous of those that are,  and keenly aware of the impact potential. However, I'm already mentally prepared for the missed opportunity. While I want to be "right in there" and know that this is where I shine I know better and have to steer clear.

And when I finally understand that my friend of many years ago, now "Advisor Number One" to a man of untold economic and political power is himself not only powerless but attached to a power block that leaves little room for the democratic inclusive values that he fought for (quite literally) many years ago I have to ask myself where our real motivation for success lies and where our real potential to influence change is really based.

This is not a new struggle.

However, in our evolving world where experts and professionals cross lines and milieu at a supersonic rate, where we assume that where transformation can occur in one arena than surely another, maybe this is time to slow down and rethink the model. There are examples galore of this dysfunction. The current debate around Thomas Piketty is a great example of a cross-purpose conversation (not to reduce our brilliant world economists and their commentators to a simple "misunderstanding") where economists, politicians, business execs and development wonks assume a common understanding of some of the most complex issues challenges today's changing environment. We're reduced to asking if the data is good - not why equality matters, from whose perspective, who decides and why Piketty has managed to touch such a raw nerve right now.

Much more banal and mainstream, the assumption that now that international development agencies have understood that its-all-about-the-economy-stupid they can find the growth solutions for the poor countries of the world (see DFID's new aid strategy - the big silence), or that international development organizations will make welcome (and effective/passionate) bed fellows for the likes of Coca Cola, Unilever and Total. All this while purporting to uphold the critical human rights/sustainable development/biodiversity/pro-poor (list ever so long) values that give us all the stamp of approval we seek for our personal feel-good factor and know that our clients need to see this box ticked.

Today idealism is simply laughed away as impractical, naive and depassé. But finding the right dose of value - based decision making, pragmatic compromise with an eye on the "bottom line" mixed with passion for the change we all intuitively adhere to if allowed to follow our hearts is a huge ask. In the end the temptation to cross the red line for the glory of self-image, half-convinced that the potential to change and embark on a journey is there, seduced by the circle of power we find ourself in … this temptation is so overwhelming and the alternative such a hard slog that its not surprising we all fall at one time or another.