Pursuing the Global Dream

Ken Silverstein | Jul 10, 2006

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The Rev. Leon Sullivan stood 6 feet 5 inches. In life he was huge. In death he is even bigger. His presence was and is globally felt and a reminder to corporate America that ethics is foundation upon which prosperity is built.

While this humanitarian passed away in April 2001, his visions of a world with better economic prospects for everyone will live on. The Sullivan Foundation, created about a year after his death, is committed to bringing jobs and justice to regions deserving of such opportunity. The 20 national presidents and 5,000 delegates that will fill Nigeria this summer in an effort to bring more economic progress to Africa are a testament to his standing in the world community.

His life's journey is a lesson to all. In the wake of corporate scandals and the subsequent convictions of top execs at Enron, WorldCom and others, Sullivan's tale is one of delivering the global dream to the little guy -- helping them attain a sustenance level that does not just include the coverage of their food, shelter and clothing expenses but also their education and medical care.

Surely, capitalism is the most effective means to create wealth and new product services. But, many have been excluded. To deliver the benefits of capitalism to more people, Sullivan developed what is known as the Global Sullivan Principle in an effort to bridge economic disparities. While the movement started in the streets of America's urban cities and carried into the shanties of South Africa, today has become a global phenomenon with the likes of Entergy joining the cause. Much has been achieved but much more needs to be done.

Statesmen from around the world embrace Sullivan's thinking. Followers abound. And summits are held in his memory to bring economic justice to all. Perhaps his best-known victory is helping to win freedom for Nelson Mandela after 27 years in captivity, and ultimately getting South Africa freed from the shackles of apartheid. Sullivan had quietly persuaded a dozen American companies with operations in South Africa to disinvest, if the Whites continued to oppress the Black majority.

The Nigerian summit, where 5,000 delegates from the United States, Europe and Asia are expected to be present to discuss building partnerships in Africa, is a continuation of his life's work. About 20 presidents from all over the world, along with representatives from major companies, will learn about the strides that have been made there.

"Africa is a good place to invest and to live," says Carl Masters, with Atlanta-based GoodWorks. "Companies looking for opportunities will look at the continent and see there is good governance and economic incentives to invest."

He understands that there is an image of wars, famine and poverty. But, 18 of the 47 Sub-Saharan nations will report economic growth of at least 5 percent, which compares to just eight countries in that region that experienced that growth a decade ago. The fastest growing economies are the oil exporting nations of Angola, Mauritania and Sudan.

True Believers

Seven economic summits have taken place since 1991 -- all part of Leon Sullivan's broader effort to create a more just world. Since the early efforts, more than 1,000 teachers from American schools have given their time while millions of dollars in educational supplies have been donated. Doctors and therapists have worked there to carry out vital medical services while prospective businesses have been matched with the appropriate economic developers in various countries there.

The emerging democracies there are trying to get their feet and arise from decades of colonialism. And, it will take years for the efforts to stabilize. In those countries dedicated to reform, there is a strong predilection that foreign investment is a necessary component of prosperity. The issues, therefore, are about the methods by which the private sector will operate. The notion that all outsiders are colonialists -- are minority views now almost everywhere in Africa.

The efforts of the Sullivan Foundation are dedicated to ensure that advances are made. "People are making deals," says Hope Sullivan Masters, president of the Sullivan Foundation and daughter of Leon. "If you drop a pebble in the water it creates ripples. More activity means more progress."

The first President Bush awarded Leon Sullivan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, which is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a civilian. Sullivan was not the leader of high profile political movements; rather, he focused on economic justice by creating numerous foundations to train workers and boost living standards.

In 1971, he joined General Motors' board of directors, a post in which he felt he could bring about desired political changes, especially in South Africa. He was on a mission at GM, not just to boost stakeholders' profits, but to enhance living standards and civil rights for Black South Africans. Companies have obligations in the communities in which they operate, he said, and turning a blind eye to injustices is not acceptable.

GM eventually said it would disinvest unless the South African government loosened its tight grip over the Black majority, other corporations doing business there followed suit. Because that money and those jobs were the lifeblood of the nation, apartheid was doomed. It was at GM, in 1977, that he developed the Sullivan Principles, which call on American multinationals to pay all people equally, train non-Whites for professional jobs and create an overall atmosphere of tolerance. Change must be gradual -- but certain -- to allow all aspects of society to come into the fold.

"Every business, large and small, can find a way to improve the standard of life for poor people who need help in America and in the world," Leon Sullivan said to this writer before he died. "Government can't do it all," "Corporations must contribute to the cultureā€ of ethics and the well-being of society in general.

Those words were particularly profound 20 years ago. But with the wave of scandals and deceit that have swept the nation over the last five years, they are worth hearing again. Today, many corporations that include energy conglomerates follow Leon Sullivan's lead. His principles are founded on the belief that once companies reject discrimination under their own roofs they will take similar stands against injustice outside the workplace. Now the movement has expanded beyond South Africa and into the reaches of every pocket in the world. The Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility is a voluntary code of conduct built on a vision of aspiration and inclusion.

Leon Sullivan was a humble man. It was not until late in his life that he revealed himself to a broader cadre of admirers. And his ideals -- his legacy -- have been meant as a roadmap for other humanitarians. The corporate world as well as all the stakeholders in the free enterprise process should follow his example.

Read a related story from EnergyBiz magazine:
"African Lightning - Dealing with Juju Curses" by G. Pascal Zachary, EnergyBiz, May/June 2006

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