Apr 10, 2021 Last Updated 4:12 AM, Apr 8, 2021

The continuing fall out of the now nearly five years old global financial crisis has put Gordon Gecko-style “greed is good” corporate credos firmly in the shade. At least the brazenly overt culture of corporate excess of the decade prior has virtually disappeared from the public view. Protests like the worldwide occupy movement, however ragtag it might have seemed, helped ensure that.

It would be naïve to think that corporate fat cats—particularly of the rarefied, overleveraged financial world who dealt in a bewildering range of financial bubbles—have vanished despite some very high profile heads rolling as a result of the crisis. But there is no doubt the brazenness of extreme debt fuelled corporate bravado has virtually disappeared in what is often touted as an atmosphere of “austerity”.

With no pundit wanting to risk predicting the end of the crisis, global big businesses are rethinking strategies to stay connected to their markets and consumers in a bid to live down the “big is bad, greedy and ruthless” image that gained currency as the financial crisis unfolded. New, innovative strategies now take on board corporate reputational imperatives with activities that appear to be long-term and much more substantial than philanthropic initiatives of the past.

Corporate social responsibility is not entirely a new idea but is rapidly becoming a buzzword which companies big and small are building their future business strategies. It is based on the rather belated recognition that the wellbeing of the company is interdependent on the wellbeing of the customer, the community, environment and the world. And its reputational value is now being acknowledged than ever before in the past.

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Access to regular and affordable supply of nutritious food and freshwater for drinking and domestic use faces growing challenges on multiple fronts. We looked at food security and access to freshwater situation in the Pacific Islands region in last month’s column. Let’s look at the challenges this presents to vulnerable populations and possible ways to counter them.

Necessities like food have come to depend almost completely on global supply chains over the past several decades. This model of food production and distribution has shifted the emphasis from small farmers growing food locally to large super farms, citing economies of scale, that almost completely depend on corporate-controlled logistics and distribution networks to get to end users.

The model was built on the availability of cheap energy, particularly cheap oil, not taking into account the fact that oil was ultimately a finite source of energy. Oil prices have fluctuated in recent decades and the cost of moving essentials has increased many times. This has particularly affected small, remote populations like those in the Pacific Islands region. Rising costs of distribution is but one factor that has threatened food security.

The others are depleting populations, the lack of investment in food growing infrastructure and manpower, deteriorating growing conditions, changing weather patterns and climate change—and for low-lying islands nations, rising sea levels.

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Last month, Kiribati President Anote Tong, when asked why his country was acquiring land in Fiji, said it was primarily for reasons of food security. He dispelled the notion that the move was for finding a new home for Kiribati citizens. The world’s media has focused on Kiribati over much of the past decade as one of the nations most threatened by sea level rise.

While the effects of climate change are clearly evident all over Tarawa Atoll—more frequent king tides causing increased flooding, erratic rainfall depleting the water table and increased salinity making agriculture difficult—the atoll nation’s far more immediate problems are less evident. These problems are far more serious than the much talked about sea level rise.

Also last month, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, on a visit to Kiribati, said that the water supply situation in the country was “unsustainable,” and needed urgent measures to ensure access to a sufficient quantity of water for personal and domestic uses.

Food security and access to safe water are growing problems on several Pacific Islands that do not get the kind of media attention that climate change and sea level rise do, although the two problems are connected to an extent. But as well as climate change, a number of other humanmade factors affect food security.

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One of the pithier definitions of news is,‘something that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know’. More often than not, that someone is in a position of power—either in government or in business— and what they don’t want you to know is some shady thing that has been done at your cost. It is no surprise, therefore, that the powers that be—whether in government or business—so often find themselves at loggerheads with the news media.

Most politicians and businesspeople are of the view that the news media is a necessary evil that has to be lived with. History is littered with instances of politically motivated muzzling of the media with methods ranging from financial and physical coercion to the enactment of legislation heavily loaded against libertarian freedoms, mainly targeting freedom of expression, leading to censorship in many guises. Less obvious is the influence that big business wields over the news media.

Big spenders of advertising dollars have mastered the fine art of extracting their pound of flesh in terms of gaining favourable exposure—while getting the media to gloss over what would seem unfavourable—by leveraging their huge ad spend, which indeed is the lifeblood of the news media. The influence of big money has muscled its way to the front pages.

And quite literally, too: think how often these days you see a highly paid for advertising wraparound concealing the front page of a newspaper under a faux masthead. The burning desire to control the media has traditionally been associated with politics and politicians—not so much business and businesspeople. However, that is about to change as we are seeing it unfold in Australia—but more about that, a little later in the piece.

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This month, thousands of the world’s political leaders, scientists, corporate heads and representatives from civil society, non government organisations and interest groups will gather at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as the Rio+20 summit) in Brazil. They will deliberate on ways to promote greater social equity by reducing poverty while ensuring environmental protection. None of these ideas are new and such jamborees have been held periodically in many parts of the world since the first such conference in Rio twenty years ago.

Their achievement so far can at best be termed as patchy. Climate Change conferences have failed to achieve consensus, repeatedly generating skepticism around mega-events like Rio+20. But they have succeeded in greatly raising awareness about environmental degradation and the progressive loss of biodiversity. They have helped bring ideas like sustainability and social equity into the public discourse. They have catalysed the incorporation of these concepts in development initiatives, especially at local grassroots levels.

This has helped to percolate these ideas through levels of government and through the media into communities’ grassroots activities like agriculture, fisheries and helped promote ideas of conserving resources around these practices. The awareness of sustainable practices is much more out there among the people than ever before and being involved in the activities themselves, it is best for decision-makers to hear straight from the communities and people who are at the coalface.

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