Enabling economic development

Excerpt from an essay by Mark Moody-Stuart; Chairman of Committee of Managing Directors of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group

issued Monday 14 February 2000

Some choose to portray the 20th century in black terms. We should certainly not forget the evil done. Nor should we diminish the deprivation and gross inequality many still suffer. But we should never lose sight of the widespread advances - in health, nutrition, education, quality of life and access to opportunities.

I believe commercial enterprises make a vital contribution to those advances - extending skills, advancing technology and creating capital.

Many don't agree. The events at Seattle last November were just one manifestation of a growing distrust of business. We should heed those warnings.

We've taken for granted that people know what business contributes. Not so! We have to argue for what we believe. More important, we must demonstrate we really do help make the world better. That includes not just wealth creation, but ensuring that we set standards of civilised behaviour in and around our own operations, demonstrating and expressing support for fundamental human rights. But the most basic human right is the right to life and a means of maintaining it.

So I believe the most immediate challenge is to set the poorest countries on a path to sustainable development. It's not just that a quarter of humans live on less than $1 a day. Or that the gap between them and others is widening. What really matters is that the poorest are going backwards. GDP per capita in least developed countries has been falling since the 1970s. I don't think this will be accepted for much longer in a shrinking world - where their misery is clear to us, and our wealth to them. Responsibility for action is widely shared - for more and better aid, debt relief, fairer trade, investment. This industry has a vital role in developing the energy systems which support development and raise living standards.

Commercial investment offers other vital benefits - transferring skills, developing capabilities, creating global links. But this depends on how we behave.

The starting point must be to recognise that business has responsibilities to all affected by its activities - not just to shareholders and customers.