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Wednesday 26th September, 6.05pm, St Mary le Bow

JustShare lecture: "Business, poverty and belief systems"

 

It was a privilege to welcome Paul Szkiler, founder and Chair of Truestone Asset Management, to share his experience of fighting poverty through business.  He proposed that capital deployed with head and heart together could lift huge numbers of people out of poverty far more effectively than aid – and he described how his own organisation had demonstrated this.

 

Whilst on business in Sierra Leone, where 2 in every 5 children die before their 5th birthday and life expectancy is just 39 years, Paul had given $1,500 dollars to a pastor and commissioned him to use it to benefit poorer people in the community. Returning one year later, he found that the pastor had established a thriving microfinance programme for women who greeted him with smiles to share their business success stories. Paul therefore gave the pastor $5,000 to expand the programme, and increased the amount each year until today, the programme has $1m+ in circulation and 6,000 clients, of whom 80% are Muslim (Paul is driven by his own Christian faith but, like most faith-based programmes, his microfinance project is open to people of all faiths and none). The default rate is just 7% which compares favourably with most credit card companies in the UK – and the programme is having a real impact on the women who have joined it. An independent study showed that 40% of the women were now able to send their children to good schools as compared with 8% previously, whilst 56% now used a safer water supply, 76% had bought household assets such as bicycles or cooking stoves and all of the women were now cooking with coal instead of wood. In a similar story of success, Paul also shared the experience of helping a colleague to set up a pharmaceuticals distribution business in Sierra Leone to combat the circulation of fake and expired drugs whilst generating local employment.

 

Despite these success stories, Paul suggested that the impact investment market had not yet taken off as had been predicted. A report commissioned by JP Morgan predicted that impact investment (market rate returns (Truestone’s Impact Investments typically offered 8-10%p.a.) combined with a measurable social dividend) would become a trillion dollar asset class within 10 years, but Paul estimated it was currently only at around $20m p.a.. Given the billions of dollars invested by trusts and foundations around the world, it should be possible to make a much larger impact in the fight against poverty if some of these trusts could be persuaded to invest in impact investment opportunities aligned with their own charitable objectives.

 

Paul felt that one reason for the slow uptake of impact investment was our culture of fear and risk-aversion. He argued that an analogy could be drawn between faith and risk, and that having an eternal perspective would help investors realise the value of investing for longer-term social or environmental impact. Instead, he felt that many City workers were driven to perform constantly in order to prove themselves and gain a sense of self-worth through success. A genuinely Christ-like approach would instead be to empower the poorest (as microfinance does) rather than to increase the wealth of the richest (as capitalism tends to do). Using the professional skills and finance of business to empower the poor often empowered the giver in rich spiritual ways too. Business could – and in the future should – play a much bigger role in the fight against poverty.

 

Discussions continued over Fairtrade wine generously sponsored by La Riojana.