Finally, Speaking Truth to Power

Photograph Source: i threw a guitar at him. – CC BY 2.0

Someone, finally, spoke truth to power by confronting financial gurus in their own back-yard, or at least asked them some powerful questions. The head of the International Labor Organization (ILO) courageously challenged heads of finance at a recent meeting in Geneva. “My question is: have you recanted the Milton Friedman of 50 years ago?” he interrogated the local bankers. “Just make money?” he went on. “Have you had your epiphany of your animal spirits being tamed in that regard?”

Taming animal spirits? Domesticating the Wolf of Wall Street? These words prompted recollections of Joseph N. Welch putting to rest the McCarthy era witch hunt for Communists by gently asking the firebrand senator from Wisconsin: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” on television. Taming bankers in Geneva and asking Joe McCarthy for decency, two sides of an ethical whole.

Guy Ryder, a former union leader and current ILO chief, pulled no punches in speaking at the second meeting of the Building Bridges Summit. The room was filled with big money honchos and Ryder seized the moment to provoke them.

Although the Building Bridges project was started by the influential banker Patrick Odier, it is obvious that Ryder’s call for the necessity of financial involvement in social improvements has had little impact. To many, sustainable finance sounds like an oxymoron. As Ryder said of the need to “mobilize finance to make the ambitions of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals” possible, “10 years out from the deadline, how are we doing? Not so great…we simply haven’t gotten it right.”

Geneva is the home of many multilateral organizations, but it is also a city of silo constituencies geographically divided by the Mt. Blanc Bridge. On one side are the bankers and financiers where “Swiss banks manage 27% of global wealth,” according to Switzerland’s Finance Minister Ueli Maurer. It is estimated that Swiss banks managed 2,900 billion francs in 2020. On the other side of the Rhone are the international organizations concerned with human rights and social issues such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Labor Organization.

They are silos because they each exist within their own ecosystems. Years ago, I tried to organize meetings between officials of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the ILO to see how something called the Social Clause could impact trade agreements. After all, trade in goods and services does have social consequences for people. “Don’t even try to organize a soccer game between us,” an ILO official reprimanded me, as if it were the most outlandish proposal he had ever heard. Labor was labor, trade was trade. And never the two shall meet.

The Building Bridges project is a figurative concretization of crossing the Mt. Blanc Bridge. It asks financiers to think beyond money, to go beyond quarterly reports of earnings to shareholders to regular reports about their company’s impact on the biosphere to global commons stakeholders. “If we want to create something sustainable, we have to take into account all types of capital, including natural capital and social capital for example,” said André Hoffman, vice-president of Roche Holding Ltd. and the great-grandson of Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche who founded the drug company Roche Holding in 1896. “There will be no future if there is no sustainability,” he added. Hoffmann’s estimated net worth is close to $ 6 billion. So when he speaks of sustainable development, maybe there is some traction crossing the Bridge.

But the question of which direction we should cross the bridge was also asked by Ryder. Are we going from the finance to the social, including international organizations and social movements, or the other way? “Are you leaders?” Ryder demanded. Or, he asked, are you merely followings politicians as well as “signals from the market about social preferences?” Calling wealthy financiers followers was Ryder’s way of saying that leadership should come from finance, or at least the financial and social could meet somewhere in the middle of the Bridge.

Private/public partnerships are the current wave simply because governments and intergovernmental organizations are short on cash. The annual budget of the ICRC is over $2 billion; UNHCR’s over $8 billion. To fill growing social needs, more and more donations to public international organizations are coming from private donors and foundations as governments are less willing and less able to pay. With the stock market rising to new highs, the private sector is the obvious place to turn.

Will financiers start their engines to cross the Bridge? Will they be leaders instead of followers? It’s long past the time when I tried to organize a soccer game between the ILO and the WTO to link social issues to trade and finance.  But it’s also long past the time when the animal spirits of market greed should be tamed and the Wolf of Wall Street domesticated.

Crossing the Mt. Blanc Bridge takes only eight minutes walking. A simple stroll. But it takes over ten years for a drop of water to go from the source of Lake Geneva in Villeneuve to get to the Bridge. (Things don’t go so quickly in Switzerland.) Will the bankers become sensitive to global stakeholders instead of reacting only to invested shareholders? Guy Ryder asked the right questions. Patrick Odier has started an enormous bridge construction. A short walk or the slow movement of water? Social needs cannot wait. Let’s cross the Bridge quickly, and from both directions.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.