Monthly Archives: October 2008

The market meltdown and voluntary sector: News media beginning to take notice

In a previous post I criticized Canadian news media, key government departments and leading non-profit organizations for lagging in their reporting and public commentary about the impacts of the global economic slowdown on the voluntary sector. Although not all have begun to speak publicly, kudos to those that have done so. Among news media, the public broadcaster and Globe & Mail have reported in remarkable synchronicity this week on how the market meltdown is impacting charitable giving across the country.

Looking just to the CBC and Globe coverage some interesting patterns may be starting to emerge. Last week the Salvation Army in Ottawa reported a “jump” this year in demand for its services, while donations have dropped by $80,000. Fuel costs have also doubled for a number of agencies. The Salvation Army’s national office reports paying $1-million extra in fuel nationwide this year over last year. Meanwhile donations have not kept pace, dropping approximately $100,000 from this time last year. This news is especially troubling for charities serving communities in remote locations that depend on air or ocean transport of donated goods.

In British Columbia the situation is even more dire. The Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation, reports having lost $100 million to the global financial crisis and will have to reduce between $10-$15 million of funding for Vancouver community initiatives, affecting everything from youth ballet programming to blood services. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, which feeds 25,000 people a week has also been hit hard – it reports a 20 percent drop in donations over the summer, which is threatening its ability to meet a likely increase in demand for the coming year. “We will never deny food to anybody and we hope we never reach that point,” said Arlene Kravitz, the society’s director of communications. “However, if the donations keep going down, we won’t have enough. We’ll have to cut.” 

In other communities, the news is not quite so bleak. Local charities in Kingston, Ontario, report that private donations have been “pouring in” despite the wider woes in the economy. According to Bhavana Varma, president of the local United Way, her charity has raised $1.6 million so far this year, more than 50 per cent of its goal and far more than it had at this time last year. In part, Kingston’s relative stability has to do with the fact that it is a small city by comparison with Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto, where the pinch has been far sharper; but it also benefits from a stable local economy, with large public sector employers that include a university, a hospital and a military base, all of which will be relatively immune from the big job losses that are hitting large cities and those with a manufacturing based economy (at least in the short term).

The factors underlying this shift in how the national media has reported the effects of the slumping economy on the charity sector are likely mixed: we have finally moved from the single-mindedness that defines election campaign coverage, meaning that news organizations are starting to focus again on matters of greater importance than bird poop and accusations of political plagiarism; non-profit organizations are also likely becoming more proactive in their public communication activities, increasing production of information subsidies (economic updates, reports and other media releases) that are staples of the news business; and the realists among us may even argue that only now the impact has begun to finally emerge (ontological questions aside, why we are weeks behind the Brits in addressing the implications of the crisis remains unexplained). 

Regardless of the reasons for why this story is now starting to be told, it’s incumbent upon all leading social and political institutions to develop immediate solutions for tackling the problem. These should include short term actions in the form of one-time transfer payments from all levels of government to targeted charity organizations in the most affected regions and serving the most vulnerable people; long term actions that include increases in core funding by governments for the voluntary sector should also be addressed.

Canada’s voluntary sector is the second largest in the world – it engages more than 12 million volunteers, generates upwards of $112 billion in revenue, and contributes almost 7% to the Gross Domestic Product. Failing to address the impact of the crisis on the sector not only makes for bad economic policy, but it’s almost certain to intensify increased demand for charitable services, longer lineups at food banks and more people requiring the support of emergency shelters in the coming months and beyond.

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Greening Corporate Reputation

Canada’s agenda-setting newspaper The Globe & Mail yesterday memorialized Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) as one of the world’s 50 greatest reads, praising its role in stimulating greater public understanding about science and helping to shape the modern environmental movement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the book lately, with 2 graduate students working on issues relating to environmental communication and one having just completed such a study. I read the book for the first and only time in a social and environmental studies course in high school. 

So it was more than a little serendipitous that within minutes of reading the review, a Google Alert came thundering through the ether to publicize two new reports: the first is the 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Index, released by the Center for Corporate Citizenship and Reputation Institute at Boston College. Using data collected for Reputation Institute’s 2008 Global Pulse Study, the report evaluates the top 50 U.S. corporations in terms of their commitments to sustainable economic growth and finds that corporate governance, ethics and transparency are increasing in their importance to overall corporate reputation. An important caveat is that the data were gathered long before the market meltdown; as some analysts have argued, the downturn in the economy will be a true test of corporate commitments to sustainable business practice. 

The second report called MapChange was released by the Vancouver-based green marketing and brand management firm Change (the full report can be downloaded here). MapChange is a “perceptual mapping tool” that assesses how committed the top brands in Canada are to the environment, and how committed consumers think they are. In short, it allows brand managers to assess a range of possible reputational threats, whether these derive from specific stakeholder concerns, such as when activists demand that global corporations change their supply chain practices to limit carbon emissions, or expectation gaps, such as when companies fail to communicate progressive environmental practices to stakeholders, thus falling short of consumer expectations.

As the consultants at Change make clear, in the world of branding reality is a social construction: “what is real is only what is perceived to be real.” Communication is thus central not only to effective marketing but also activist criticism of brand performance.

Indeed, the report indicates that better action doesn’t necessarily equal better perception. General Motors has been regularly criticized for its sustainability efforts, but despite performing better in Actual Sustainability practices than its competitor Toyota, the latter has attained by far the highest Perceived Sustainability score (must be all those Prius product placements on hit cable shows like Six Feet Under and Weeds). The report also shows that some brands have benefitted from a “halo effect” — consumers of Apple products perceive the company’s sustainability practices to be much better (5th overall) than their actual performance (14th overall) — while others, such as Nike, have not been able to overcome the bad public images they accrued from past behaviour, despite progressive efforts to improve business practice (Nike ranked 17th on Perceived Sustainability, despite being 5th on Actual Sustainability).

It’s unclear what the future holds for sustainable business practices. The Wall Street Journal reports that on the heels of the market meltdown in the U.S., oil prices have plummeted because of fears about a global recession, a move unlikely to stimulate reductions in consumer demand for fossil fuels and thus the pressure needed to keep corporations focused on the triple bottom line.  In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes that we should invest all bailout profits in green infrastructure to stimulate sustainable technology. Yet, if we believe the Financial Times, the economic crisis has made consumers worldwide less likely to spend their money on green products.

All of these mixed signals mean many things, not the least of which is that if you are in the business of green marketing, there is going to be a lot of confused corporations looking for strategic counsel and a lot of environmental activists with their radars intently focused.

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iWatch: The Power of Surveillance in your Pocket

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

In the discourse about surveillance, the Big Brother trope is king.  Popular culture provides us with recognizable scripts in which to locate our own anxieties and uncertainties about the present, even though the reality of everyday life is often more complex and paradoxical than can be explained by way of simple metaphors. Ongoing revelations about state-sponsored surveillance of the citizenry also signify that top-down relations of watching and monitoring are alive and well. Think of the Bush administration’s wiretapping of American citizens (see James Bamford’s excellent piece in The Atlantic, “Big Brother is Listening”), or recent reports that the British government is seeking to expand its surveillance capabilities to include monitoring of personal telephone, Internet use and email, all in the name of the global war on terror. 

Despite the popularity with which we link discussions about surveillance to Orwellian nightmares, the practices and technologies that enable us to watch and be watched are diverse. Individualized modes of surveillance have been around for some time and have become ubiquitous: computer cookies, GPS in our cars, dietary regimes linked to online weight management services, and Health Watch initiatives in certain drug store chains are just a few examples of surveillance systems that do not immediately correspond with the notion that the powerful few are keeping watch over powerless who are many.

Despite the proliferation of personalized monitoring schemes, surveillance has arguably never been so chic. Thanks to enabling software developed by the Australian technology company, Zylotech, and the always creative and clever folks at Apple, you can now become your own private Ministry of Truth. While the U.S. and British cases noted above reveal that vertical relations of surveillance remain firmly entrenched, lateral surveillance now has a new look and feel. With the ‘One-Touch’ Smart G camera technology, Zylotech offers consumers secure surveillance of their personal property via their iPhone

According to Zylotech CEO, Nicholas Sikiotis, the product (which will retail for approximately $700) allows users to enable their iPhone to monitor geographical spaces (e.g. personal property) in real time. Using a “one-touch” icon request via the phone’s main menu, users can receive instant camera or pre-determined video snapshots of their homes or businesses – ever wonder if the mail carrier is snooping or if the nasty neighbour’s dog is treating your hibiscus like a fire hydrant? Now you can see with just a slide and click.

It’s true that personalized surveillance systems (particularly for home monitoring) is not new, and the Zylotech invention isn’t the creepiest example of how we are all becoming approximations of Big Brother. This article from the Chicago Sun Times reports that a Chicago man recently became the first to willingly link up his private home surveillance network to the city’s 911 emergency center after city officials publicly offered citizens the chance to participate in a creating “a panoramic view of disaster scenes.” 

Nevertheless, the Zylotech enhanced iPhone may very well be the first example of a consumer product that combines the power of entertainment, immediate access to people and information and the capacity to monitor and watch. It’s time we flip Orwell on his head and take up Mark Crispin Miller’s argument, now 20 years old: “as you watch, there is no Big Brother out there watching you. Big Brother is you, watching.”

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When Risk, Fear and Corporate Power Collide

An interesting blog by Wired magazine reporter Brandon Keim suggests that the recent decision of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to put the American people on “alert” for an anthrax attack has more to do with protecting the Bush administration’s cozy relationship with manufacturers of anthrax vaccines than protecting the nation from a bio-terrorist attack. Project BioShield is a $5.6 billion effort to exploit the top medical and scientific brains in the U.S. and fill an emergency medical cabinet with new drugs and vaccines for a host of threats, from anthrax to small pox and avian influenza. 

According to the Public Readiness and Preparedness Act of 2005, drug manufacturers are protected against paralyzing lawsuits that may follow outbreaks of anthrax, avian influenza or other potentially pandemic diseases if their vaccines are proven to be ineffective. The Act is a controversial liability shield intended to protect vaccine manufacturers from financial risk in the event of a declared public health emergency at the discretion of the Executive branch of government. Even though the Act is supposed to be invoked when the Secretary of Homeland Security has determined “that there is a domestic emergency, or a significant potential for a domestic emergency, involving a heightened risk of attack with a specified biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear agent or agents,” Keim notes that even Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff admits no such evidence of these conditions actually exists.

“These findings are not necessary to make a determination,” Chertoff is quoted as writing in a brief to the Department of Health and Human Services. The identification of anthrax as a threat four years ago is sufficient for allowing “the government to determine in the future that there is a heightened risk” of a new attack.

Want to really get spooked? Check out this scary news piece by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a nonprofit organization that provides programming by cable, broadcast and satellite to approximately 200 countries, in approximately 71 languages, with a 24-hour telephone prayer line:

Keim clearly comes down harder on the Bush administration than he does the vaccines industry, but given the questionable efficacy of these vaccines one is left wondering whether we may wish to pay more critical attention to the lobbying activities of the drug industry. The legal liability clause in the Public Readiness and Preparedness Act is certainly not the result of government charity. 

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The Food Security & Safety Puzzle

One of the current era’s most pressing political, economic and public health issues is food security and safety. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness in Canada have brought this home in a powerful and highly resonant way, yet there is much more to the issue than the increased potential for infection and disease. Costs are also rising sharply and this is going to make the issue of food scarcity a matter of personal decision-making and public policy for the first time in decades.

The global integration of food markets has given us a world in which decisions about how we produce and consume food are creating new problems that threaten to spread in rhizomatic fashion, touching not only policies relating to food production, but also energy, urban planning, health care and the environment. LSE sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that we live now in the age of side-effects. Society is no longer defined as a closed and self-equilibriating system of linear processes that can be more or less controlled, predicted and rationalized (i.e., through science and statistical reasoning). For Beck, instrumental reason has been replaced by reflexivity as the motor of social change. It is not the crises or failures of the industrial period but the side effects of its success that now pose for us in the period of reflexive modernity different challenges and demand new ways of thinking.

The issue of food security and safety illustrate Beck’s argument about reflexivity and side-effects very well. As Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times this past weekend, a reform to our national food systems (he focuses on the U.S., but the lessons have wide application) is arguably the most important policy issue facing modern governments not just because of rising prices and concerns about scarcity, but because how we make and consume food has implications for nearly everything else we do. In other words, just as a rhizome works with horizontal and trans-species connections, food policy also extends evermore into new and varied directions. In a bygone era, Pollan argues, politicians resolved to find new ways of increasing production as a way of addressing concerns about access: implement policies that will encourage increased production in order to flood the market with more commodities that will tilt the ratio of supply and demand so that prices eventually drop. But if this strategy ‘worked’ in the past it’s because this was a time when energy was relatively cheap and we had a collective perception that the resources on which we depend for cheap energy were in abundance. It was also based on a linear model of cause and effect.

Those days are over.

We now face a global environmental crisis which demands new strategies and solutions because the decisions and actions we make about X have implications for the risks we will face about Y, Z, V, S and so on. The food system uses more fossil fuels than any other industry, save for the auto sector. And “the way we feed ourselves,” Pollan writes, “contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do.” As he argues, unless reforms are made to national food policies first, we won’t possibly make any headway toward resolving the global environmental crisis or the myriad public health problems that are associated with it, let alone the directly observable rise in the prices of yogurt, meat and vegetables we see every day.

Pollan’s article is published as a letter to the President Elect of the United States. He decries the lack of attention by senators McCain and Obama to food issues, although he cleverly links them to other policy areas where the presidential hopefuls have been making their case (i.e., healthcare, environment, etc.). Canadians are going to the polls today to elect a new federal government, but there is just as much concern here about the place of food issues on the political radar as Pollan suggests of the U.S. The only time food safety and security became an election issue was in relation to insensitive comments by the Conservative agriculture minister early in the campaign regarding the listeriosis outbreak. Regrettably, neither the opposition parties nor the media did much to connect the comments to policies relating to food production or safety in this country. Let’s hope that this changes (here and in the U.S.) once the electoral dust has settled.

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Silence in Canada as International Charities Feel Market Crunch

In June 2008, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), a London, UK-based international development charity, issued a media statement urging City employees to “swap their six figure salaries” for voluntary work in the developing world. Citing looming prospects about labour market uncertainty, VSO argued that volunteering in the poorest parts of the world will deliver more than just a meaningful experience and personal reward – it will also enhance professional development and one’s marketability to prospective employers. With several years of economic downturn predicted, the organization has been encouraging the upwardly mobile to take a two year sabbatical overseas and return after market conditions improve.

The Times Online reports today that job market fears and mortgage pressures have combined to produce a perfect storm in which VSO now finds itself scrambling to fill several hundred positions in the next five months. VSO volunteers typically help developing countries to build their education and health systems and the capacity of community organizations in areas such as human rights and income generation. A sign of the volatile times, VSO states that 55 people with backgrounds in teaching, law and management recently withdrew from its recruitment process because they feared they would not be able to find a job after returning from their time abroad.

It’s unclear what impact the global credit crunch will have on international development organizations based in Canada. Throughout the current federal election campaign Prime Minister Harper has been arguing that the economic fundamentals in Canada remain strong, despite indications of a recession in the U.S. and shaky markets overseas. Earlier in the year his finance minister Jim Flaherty stated much of the same in a speech to the Economic Club of Toronto, and he argued that the Conservatives had created “a tremendous stimulus for charitable giving in Canada.”  These rather more positive assessments stand in marked contrast to statements coming out of the business and finance sectors. Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, argues that the country’s leading politicians appear to be in denial about the financial crisis. “It’s clear that something profound is happening,” he is quoted as saying in a CBC report, “yet the politicians up to now have wanted to talk about everything else.” Doug Porter, with BMO Capital Markets, is even more dire in his assessment: “At this point, if this kind of volatility keeps up, I think we’re looking at a much more serious downturn than a mild recession that most of us are talking about.”  

Yet what is clear is that despite indications the economy may be veering toward a recession, leaders in Canada’s development and charitable sectors have been silent. VSO Canada, which recently announced a merger with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) to become the largest volunteer-based international cooperation agency in Canada, has been quiet on the matter. CIDA, Canada’s lead government agency for development assistance, has not issued a single statement about the impacts that the slowing economy will have on its capacity to continue delivering aid overseas. And while the Charities Aid Foundation in Britain has been regularly issuing updates on the economic implications of the market meltdown for the voluntary sector, Imagine Canada has been mute by comparison. Not a single report has been published or broadcast on any of Canada’s major news outlets. Even the news page of Charity Village, “Canada’s supersite for the nonprofit sector,” reports nothing about how the global economic slowdown will impact charitable giving. 

The failure of leading development agencies, nonprofit organizations and media organizations in Canada to discuss publicly the impacts that the global market slowdown will have on the voluntary sector is a cause for concern. Individuals who will be feeling the sharpest edges of the economic crisis will be increasingly reliant on charity to survive. The Association of Chief Executive of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) in Britain reports that demand in that country for charitable services has increased by 72% in the last year alone, while donations have dropped by almost a third in the same period. Social enterprises are also feeling the pinch. As reported by Charity Finance, a poll of nearly 1,000 social entrepreneurs and small business owners found that nearly four out of ten say they have experienced cashflow difficulties in the past few months. Around 70 per cent of those who had recently applied for a business loan or credit card had been turned down, while over a third had been forced to resort to personal loans and credit cards.

Charity organizations everywhere are already or will very soon be facing difficult choices in the foreseeable future between reducing services or running deficits to maintain existing programs. And when these factors combine with the steady rise in costs of energy, fuel and food, the most vulnerable citizens – whether they are in Zambia, Liverpool, Buenos Aires or Toronto – will be hardest hit. 

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China’s PR Problem

China’s efforts to improve its image overseas continues to suffer setbacks. Two news stories yesterday threaten to confirm the picture that many in the West have of the People’s Republic as a country where citizens exercise little political and intellectual freedom, let alone freedom over reproductive rights.

First, Reuters reports that the city government in Shijiazhuang, home to the Sanlu Group whose contaminated milk sparked what is now a worldwide recall, sat on a report from the company confirming the poisoning while Beijing hosted the Olympics. More troubling, even, is the revelation that Sanlu executives requested assistance from government officials to help “manage” media coverage of the crisis: “Please can the government increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company’s products,” the People’s Daily cited the letter from Sanlu as saying. 

Then there was the report in the New York Times that Canadian researchers at The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary think tank based at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto that conducts research on new technology and global civic politics, had revealed a massive China-based Internet surveillance program involving the monitoring of Skype conversations.

The researchers reported this week that a cluster of computers in China were found to contain more than a million censored messages. The surveillance system would apparently track text messages sent by customers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, the Web auctioneer that owns Skype, an online phone and text messaging service. The researchers report that the computer networks hadn’t been properly configured, meaning that they were able to decipher the text messages and reconstruct a list of restricted words (Falun Gong, Taiwan independence, the Chinese Communist Party, democracy, earthquake and milk powder, among others) that set off the monitoring software. While the Times report indicates that it is unclear who was operating the surveillance system, the researchers suggest that it was likely a wireless firm based in China and “cooperating”  with the police.

University of Toronto political scientist Ronald J. Diebert wasn’t mincing words when he described the Skype operation as a conspiracy theorist’s “worst nightmare … It’s ‘X-Files’ without the aliens.”

As the political winds blow with change, this is looking really bad for the Chinese government’s ongoing public relations and diplomacy efforts, and could pose a challenge to U.S.-based multinational corporations which have been aggressively seeking ways to access the world’s largest emerging consumer market. In a 2003 article in Public Relations Review, Juyan Zhang and Glen T. Cameron chronicled an international public relations campaign by the Chinese government in the United States “aimed at “presenting a genuine, brand new image of China before the American people.” In their article, Zhang and Cameron discuss the objectives, strategies, sponsors and timeframe of the campaign and show that image building has become increasingly important as China seeks to re-frame the picture of itself in the American psyche as a “colorless land of fear and forced abortions.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2008 Olympics were supposed to open China to the West (at least if you believe the rhetoric of those who defended having the Games in Beijing), and the Games are considered by many observers to have been nothing short of a PR success for China. What both the tainted milk and Skype stories reveal is that bad news is like a virus: it travels and infects quickly.  China may have depleted whatever cultural capital it accrued in the bank of global public opinion. The important strategic question now is whether it’s time to give up on ambitions to turn China into a new kind of democracy, or to turn the screws of diplomacy ever tighter.

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