04:45 AM Dec 07, 2012
Global Financial what summit? 

This was the most oft-repeated reaction to an event last month in Atlanta, Georgia – the Global Financial Dignity Summit

Hosted by two larger-than-life personalities straddling two generations, philanthropic entrepreneur John Hope Bryant and civil rights icon Mr Andrew Young, this conference headlined by United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke proved to be an innovative and impactful gathering of business, social and political stakeholders focused on economic development.

Together with Professor Pekka Himanen from Finland and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Mr Bryant founded the Global Dignity movement in 2006. 

This movement is based on the premise that every human being has the right to lead a dignified life and as a corollary, the right to access resources to fulfil one's potential. 

Specially designed "dignity sessions" are held in underprivileged schools to affirm self-worth and confidence not only in the way that individuals carry themselves, but also in the way that they relate to each other, often in the presence of conflict. The Global Financial Dignity Summit sought to apply this overarching framework to our current economic challenge – hence the unusual title.

Unlike the top-down macro-approach of targeting aggregate variables such as GDP, inflation, money supply and payrolls, this bottom-up micro-approach seeks to address issues of financial literacy, access to lending, skills and community development – all of which are arguably as impactful in securing national economic outcomes.


Is "dignity" too woolly and wishy-washy to demand serious attention?

Not any more so than "animal spirits", "sentiment" or "confidence" that are similarly intangible gauges used in mainstream economics. 

And with current policy practice already rife with unconventional measures – from state investment in private equity to asset-purchase, quantitative easing and directed lending – there is ample appetite for innovation in policy.

We met in Atlanta on the backdrop of two glaring observations. 

Firstly, despite the scale and open-ended nature of quantitative easing in the US, its impact on the availability of credit and the cost of credit has been less than proportionate.

The transmission mechanism is weak and will remain so unless the net of financial inclusion is widened. Credit conditions remain particularly tight for minority communities in the US, down 65 per cent from its peak.

Secondly, as highlighted by Mr Cassius Butts of the Small Business Administration, aggregate new jobs are created as much (if not more) by small businesses as it is by large companies. 

Yet, it is those enterprises that employ 50 people or less that find it most difficult to access credit. We heard from Don Graves of President Obama's newly-created Council for Jobs and Competitiveness about the need to ensure that the recovery is not "a jobless one". 


Against this backdrop, the conference produced five key takeaways that should be applicable globally.

One: The bottom-up approach of teaching financial literacy, training small proprietors on how to present business plans and so on, can be effective in mending market failure at this part of the credit market. 

Together with ensuring vocational skills that result in a better match of vacancies with capabilities, a grassroots approach to making the small enterprise more "loan officer friendly" or providing them with administrative infrastructure would also yield results. 

Two: This bottom-up approach has to be centred on developing a sense of community. 

A Financial Dignity Centre inaugurated on the eve of the summit will assist, amongst others, the chronically unemployed (those that may have fallen off the national statistics) and vulnerable children, in an attempt to snap the intergenerational links of poverty. 

The community approach to financial inclusion is not unlike the "social collateral" model of microfinance developed by Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has helped millions in Bangladesh.


Three: The either-or mindset of complete laissez-faire versus state dependence is a false dichotomy. 

It is not just Democrats serving in the current administration who think so; we also heard from Republicans who saw the need for state involvement as catalysts and facilitators, critical to the objective of job creation but not as job-creators themselves. 

Four: The forum took pains to uphold the virtues of capitalism – albeit "responsible capitalism". 

Ms Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, reminded us that of her two grandfathers, one served as board member at a bank while the other owned a lumber mill. We were told that "without a vision, populations perish; but without funding for the vision, the vision perishes". Social activism without business acumen is not of much use. 

Finally, Mr Young, the charismatic Ambassador and former Mayor of Atlanta, reminded everyone that the fight for jobs is a battle for international competitiveness. 

Increasingly, cities (not countries) are the relevant unit of analysis, and as home to international business brands such as Delta, CNN and Coca-Cola, Atlanta is somewhat of a success story. We were told that as a result of a targeted campaign, half of all German companies in the US are located in Atlanta. 

The late Czech President Vaclav Havel is credited with having said: "Hope is an orientation of spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

In a similar vein, the framework of financial dignity – of literacy, inclusion and access – must be added to the toolkit with which we tackle macroeconomic challenges. Every policy measure and its implementation must be "dignity tested". 

In the words of Ms King, this is a "radical revolution of values". Let's give dignity a chance.

Lutfey Siddiqi is a Managing Director at UBS, Adjunct Professor at the National University of Singapore and a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. He co-led a session on corporate social responsibility at the Global Financial Dignity Summit on Nov 15.

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