by Daniel Plainview
This post was written on February 21, 2016
A few years ago the movie “There Will Be Blood” came out in theatres to much critical praise, and it reflected the level of savage greed that accompanied the birth of the oil industry in 1800s America. This fit the worldview of most people: Oil = bad; anything else that isn’t motivated by money = good.
I spent over 10 years working in the Oil and Gas industry. It is common knowledge that this industry is much maligned for being run and employed by selfish capitalists that will stop at nothing to rape the planet for financial reward. Some of this commentary is fair, but it misses the larger point. You find executives and staff with this mentality everywhere in today’s capitalist society. Those evil capitalists. Grrr.
I left the Oil and Gas sector (but didn’t leave the world of finance) and spent the next few years targeting a growth industry: Impact Investment. This is an industry meant to combine the best of public and private industry. Government budgets in the western world are bloated and need to be cut back. They can no longer provide the same level of aid or services to help society as they once did. Business will target any growth industry, and the world of impact investment is attracting many business students that want to do social good in their careers (just ask any administrator in a major MBA program today).
Thus, it appears like the perfect marriage. The world will improve as private business helps social enterprises to develop sustainable impact that will reduce the weight of responsibility on government budgets. The impact return for every tax payer dollar spent on aid will increase to magical levels. Emerging economies will develop a new economy that will be modeled all over the world. Investors all over the world will start demanding a social return and lower their requirements for financial return. There will be businesses tackling every social issue in the world, reducing government corruption, improving the environment, using innovation to find cures for cancer and other diseases and the list goes on. Some students may find they don’t need an expensive education to get involved in the social entrepreneur boom and there will be fewer graduates that have to enslave themselves to a large bank or law firm to pay their college debts. They will also produce unicorns and everyone will live at the bottom of a rainbow where there is a pot of gold!
The first problem you have is in order to blend the private and public world you have to get them to cooperate. I can witness firsthand the level of distrust the public sector has towards the private industry moving in on their traditional space. They looked at me in my press-iron shirt and clean pants like I was a snake in the grass, ready to bite the neck of Mable Steepleskin, the social entrepreneur trying to help old people deal with loneliness. This level of hatred isn’t even remotely close to being the case in the reverse, from what I observed.
However, the truth is the public world of work isn’t full of the morality it portrays. We all know governments can be corrupt, but what about the donor space? Surely these people giving away money to poor countries have nothing but good intentions in mind?
To simplify the main difference between an employee in an oil company and one in an international development firm, replace monetary rewards with recognition and status. Basically that is it. The individuals in the donor or international development space don’t get paid much (although many likely don’t need to, given all of the Oxbridge, Stanvard graduates that work in the space), so their motivations must lie in improving impoverished lives. However, they end up all fighting for recognition for their work, much like oil companies compete for profit. They are all clamouring over each other to achieve the apex of moral superiority. Does this sound familiar? Just replace moral superiority with “more money” and you have the private sector.
None of these morally focused staff appear to work or cooperate together, they just fight each other and there are far too many players doing the same thing. The greed paradigm filters down in an oil company to its individual employees, who will eat each other for a promotion and a $5k raise. The greed paradigm also filters down in a donor organization to its individual employees, who will eat each other to get a promotion and praised for a project that “impacted” 1 million lives. Doing what’s best for the wider organisation be damned, it’s all about me.
There is also the “travel” angle. These people like to talk about the places they go as though it makes them a higher authority on the world (try looking for an oil industry employee that does the same – you would be hard pressed to find anyone in that industry that gets to visit “exotic” locations). The people who need help are just a byproduct, much like the grade of oil drilled out of the ground. A discouraged oil and gas employee could talk to one of these donor darlings and they would reply with “you should do what I do, because I get to travel ALL OVER THE WORLD!”. It is bullshit. It is nothing more than a different avenue for seeking status. I question whether the majority of them actually really care about what they do. Sadly with many of them, it is more important that they take pictures with a group of villagers in Africa so they can post it to Facebook and get all kind of likes and attention validation from their “sad and unimportant” friends, who will never be as lucky as to visit such a place.
Today everyone thinks of the oil and gas industry as a business that will spill blood to achieve its ends. That we need an alternative to oil and capitalism. The renewables and social impact sector….the ends might differ, but the selfish and greedy nature is still there. Nowhere is safe. There will be blood wherever you look.