The Next Tsunami

Though still a deadly catastrophe itself, last week’s earthquake off the northwestern coast of Indonesia didn’t materialize into a disastrous tidal wave like that which washed over most of the coastal communities in South Asia just after Christmas 2004, leaving death and destruction on an unprecedented scale in its wake.

With over 180,000 dead and tens of billions in damage, the world rallied to the aid of the millions of victims: Governments rose to the challenge by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief; charitable contributions from private citizens from across the world reached record levels in an outpouring of support and sympathy. Companies ramped up production to supply the needed goods and services from water purification equipment to emergency shelter to medical supplies. NGOs, disaster relief agencies, and even the military mobilized on a massive scale to airlift and distribute emergency aid to the hundreds of remote communities that had been devastated by the disaster. In Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, extremist movements, terrorist groups, and warring factions set aside their differences, at least for short term, to address the human suffering and devastation that lay in the great Tsunami’s wake. Indeed, the possibility for unity — between rich and poor; Christian, Buddhist and Muslim; corporate, government and civil society; developed and developing –was palpable. The flood had created the pretext for collaboration and common cause, at least for a while. But what happens as the immediate tragedy passes and world’s attention is inevitably drawn away to other issues. The world’s collective memory of the tragedy is already slipping — despite the region’s dire continued needs. A year from now, will the aid dry up leaving these communities destitute and impoverished? Will the region become an even greater hotbed for extremist movements and terrorist activity? Or can we envision another wave after the Great Tsunami — a wave of rebuilding through sustainable development. Indeed, with the South Asia coastline in ruins, there is an opportunity to drive the reconstruction process through an enterprise-based model organized around a vision of sustainable development. For visionary companies, this offers the chance to leapfrog directly to clean technology, wireless telecommunications, distributed generation of renewable energy, point of use water purification, sustainable agriculture, and environmentally-sound building techniques. For the financial sector, the opportunity exists to help local people pull themselves back up by the bootstraps through micro-finance and micro-entrepreneurship, rather than perpetuating a deepening cycle of aid-based dependence. In short, the next wave could be an orchestrated effort to bring inclusive capitalism to the region, with the potential to diffuse forever the insurgency movements that result from inequity, poverty, isolation, and hopelessness. Imagine the possibility of creating common cause with Indonesia –the largest Muslim nation in the World — to create a sustainable future for the country’s devastated west coast. It might be possible to transform an entire generation’s view of the United States and western capitalism. The time is now for the major corporations of the world to step up to this challenge — to forge the partnerships with the multilaterals, governments, NGOs, and local players necessary to make it happen. Editor’s Note: In a related note, is spearheading a localized sustainable rebuilding effort in the southwestern India called the Tsunami Solar Light Fund. For more information click the link following the author’s bio below. About the author… Stuart L. Hart is currently S.C. Johnson Chair of Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. He has published over 50 papers and authored or edited five books. He wrote the seminal article “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World,” which won the McKinsey Award for Best Article in Harvard Business Review in 1997, and helped launch the movement for corporate sustainability. With C.K. Prahalad, Hart also wrote the 2002 article “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” which articulated how business could profitably serve the needs of the four billion poor in the developing world. His new book, Capitalism at the Crossroads: The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World’s Most Difficult Problems, was published by Wharton School Publishing in 2005. In Capitalism at the Crossroads, Hart shows companies can become the catalyst for a truly sustainable form of global development — and profit in the process.
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