News | Gütersloh, 01/30/2012

Corporate Responsibility (1): Why Getting Involved Is Worthwhile

Civic engagement is a central topic of the Corporate Responsibility Report Bertelsmann recently published. The report documents the various ways in which our media company takes responsibility on a wide range of levels. It also spotlights employees and their efforts for the good of the company, their colleagues and other people. What motivates them? Why do they get involved? “Geo” magazine’s editor-in-chief Peter-Matthias Gaede sums up his thoughts on the matter in an essay.

A prosperous young woman richly blessed with success and public recognition sets up a foundation for children in need. She travels to Africa to see where she can help. And each year since then she has raised hundreds of thousands of euros to build shelters for homeless girls in Cairo or schools in Sudan. A professor of molecular immunology takes up his post at the University of Leipzig where he becomes aware of the sad situation in a refugee shelter and together with his wife initiates the “Bunte Gärten” (Colorful Gardens) project, which first gave persecuted people from Southern countries a bit of peaceful earth and now gives them much more: a good chance of integration. A cooperative of sprightly pensioners in Augsburg troops out day after day to feed (even) older people in need, entertain them, and clean and repair their homes. And a 75-yearold retired engineer comes to a museum twice a week to repair technical exhibits with immense patience: all of it voluntary, all without pay. But not for nothing.

People like these feel responsible for civil society, for “distant neighbors” on another continent or for face-to-face involvement with people across the street. These are people who share, who want to do good for others. And perhaps also for their own fulfillment – and what would be wrong with that?

They have always been there, but their number has grown markedly in recent times. They embody the integrative social morality, the helping hands that are in increasingly short supply in a society that is eroding its economic solidarity. And so they are becoming more important. While the benefits of social welfare and the tax system as binding agents of democracy, and as grounds for citizens’ loyalty are in danger of being eroded; as the bridges between the “haves” and “have-nots” become impassable and more and more people are feeling humiliated and detached, those helpers working selflessly for their fellow men are the protagonists of a need for community and engagement that is now more than ever coming to the fore. It is the civil society which Paul Nolte called an “investive society,” because it makes an advance investment instead of relying on receiving advance payment.

Does this sound too theoretical? That would be a pity, as these volunteers make a wonderful story. That “man is wolf to man” is part of the repertoire of a pessimistic view of the world, and has indeed been confirmed often enough. And yet it really is only half the truth. In Germany alone, more than 23 million people volunteer in charity associations, citizens‘ initiatives, or self-help groups. As “social mentors,” they help people organize their daily lives and cope with world-weariness, pump up soccer balls, provide free hairdressing for people in need of care, restore historic half-timbered houses, organize raffles to raise funds for children with cancer, renovate schools or work with cataract patients in thirdworld slums during their vacations. Former municipal administration workers, lawyers on maternity leave, stressed-out medical interns, retired bankers and managers on a search for meaning, together constitute an underestimated social force, a force that belies the gloomy prophesies of a hedonistic society of egomaniacs out for themselves. And they include people from all walks of life.

For decades, citizen engagement appeared to be hardly worth mentioning. Children, education, illness, aging, death – everything seemed to be taken care of by the “welfare state”; a state that took care of all of life’s circumstances with professionals and plans. As this state has become weaker, an understandable fear of loss has become rife. But there are also compensations. “Everyone talks about social coldness. But we experience the opposite every day,” says an executive of “Tafel,” an organization that distributes food to the needy. “In Germany, a sense of unity is on the rise,” he says. “Perhaps the first sign of a social consensus is that you no longer leave the poorest to fend for themselves when the state can no longer help.”

Researchers have been identifying the end of the “me” society – or to put it more cautiously: the end of much of it – since the turn of the last millennium. The “Giessen Test” developed by psychologist Horst-Eberhard Richter, which gauges Germans’ state of mind, recorded a trend towards an increased sense of responsibility for others for the first time since the 1970s. Similarly, the results of a „volunteer survey“ on behalf of a Berlin ministry showed that more than a third of Germans over the age of 14 work for the common good – because they feel like it and have the time, because they feel responsible, even if they have no property and hence no obligation under Article 14, paragraph 2 of the German Basic Law which states that “property entails obligations.”

Scientists at the University of Stuttgart-Hohenheim found that volunteers devote about five billion working hours to the common good in Germany each year – nearly ten percent more than the hours worked by the entire paid civil service.

But can the social benefits of such efforts be measured in figures at all? Or is their qualitative value not at least as important? Every political party welcomes citizen commitment for completely different reasons – from the FDP (less state, more responsibility!) to the Left Party (less market, more solidarity!). One might gloomily say that welfare work is repair work, emergency relief, an act of desperation when the city treasurer can no longer maintain the playground from the budget, or the school principal has to drop the cello from the orchestra – which really they both shouldn’t be allowed to do. Can love for fellow human beings even become a political platform, should politicians be allowed to rest on the growing altruism, people’s growing need to give other people time, money and advice and continue their retreat; the “caring neglect” that Nolte wrote of?

In times of growing public debt, it will inevitably come to precisely this, but it should not be forgotten that once before, back in the 19th century, Christian charity, social democratic class consciousness and a civic culture of associations grew into those great social works that are now called Caritas and Diakonie, the Samaritan Workers‘ Federation (Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, ASB) and the Workers‘ Welfare Association (Arbeiterwohlfahrt, AWO), which do many useful things, paid for with money from taxes and contributions. After the state, Caritas has become one of the largest employers in Germany with half a million full-time employees.

The political scientist Rupert Graf Strachwitz at Berlin’s “Maecenata Institut” maintains that the transition from freelance initiatives to solid structures is a normal process in which the protagonists are gradually integrated into civil society, gaining power and organizational strength in the process, but also becoming more hierarchical and losing their capacity to innovate. Therefore, new “out-of-the-box thinkers” are always crucial, he says. Individuals with the absoluteness of their own personal commitment: employees who grass the yard of a tearoom for the homeless; managers who help out in railroad station missions; master craftsmen who put together engines with schoolchildren; screw manufacturers who sponsor international gatherings for young musicians; Nobel Laureates who help pay for childcare for young female scientists.

They all create what the American sociologist Robert Putnam called “bridging social capital” – human bridges. Or to put it another way, the social glue of trust and respect that can mend the cracks between levels of society that have become estranged by rampant individualization. They at least try, even if the misanthropic view of this development turns out to be true. The criticism of the eternally critical is that there is a new dictatorship of good values, and its heroes and role models preferably come from the middle class or, worse still, the circles of millionaires, the educated, the articulate, the arbitrary – and all of their aid contains further frustration for those who are helped. In other words, each benefit received only makes the recipient weaker, imposing gratitude upon them.

But apart from the fact that this view does not do justice to the millions of committed low earners, or to all those volunteer firefighters, and apart from the fact that it is cheap to denigrate Bill Gates’ commitment to fighting malaria merely because he himself is doing splendidly, this criticism is also stupid when you consider those who need help. Because at the end of the day, only one thing is true for them: Nothing good will ever happen unless someone does it for them. And armchair do-gooders usually don’t do very much.

What about those who actually do a lot? “Successes are like cacti, they’re not meant to be relaxed on,” says Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff, dressage champion and heiress, who volunteers for Unicef. So while she could easily live in comfort in bel étage of the Taunus foothills, she takes action and champions a cause. Linsenhoff, just one example of many, is ardently committed to Africa. And to the “Unicef Photo of the Year,” which is a very good example of what our impulse to help might trigger – or perhaps disturb.

Which brings me – fittingly for a media company – to us journalists. Not to the publishing house Gruner + Jahr, or its majority shareholder Bertelsmann as a whole, but to a litmus test for each individual in their respective everyday profession. At Geo, the obvious choice is to use photographers for this – the people who turn a view of the world into our worldview.

We can use them as touchstones for our own compassion – or for the limits of human empathy, for how we deal with suffering.

Any journalist whose heart isn’t made of stone is familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that they will earn money from the suffering they have captured on their digital camera. And while they are on their way back to Copenhagen, New York or Frankfurt, the people in their pictures, who they left behind in Tripoli, in a refugee tent, in the streets of Ciudad Juárez, in a Chinese orphanage, will continue to shiver, go hungry, be homeless, on the run, beaten, and perhaps are even no longer alive. They will have taken good pictures and may even be told in an arts center in their hometown: your pictures of the suffering in the world are too good, you shouldn’t work in color, you aestheticize suffering, you exploit people to serve a market for disaster pornography, so to speak. Mistrust is rampant in our society, often even overpowering. People suspect that everything is business, and being a contemporary eyewitness is just voyeurism.

And the less cynical ask the reporter in holier-than-thou naiveté why he didn’t prevent the execution by striking the weapon from the gunman’s hand, why he didn’t adopt the starving child, why he didn’t drag the abusive father to the police in person. And the more attentive ask editors to check up again a year later to find out what has now become of the Moldovan child seen crying on the phone while talking with his parents working in Italy.

So what does it mean for journalists not to concern themselves with royal weddings and financial press conferences, not to hang around for the winner of the Formula One race or attend a gala celebrating an Idol sought and found in Germany, but instead to report on violence against children, physical and structural? What does it mean for a photographer or writer to witness old women staring into space, wrapped in blankets in a temporary shelter after the tsunami in Japan? Or 14-year-old African girls with babies fathered by rapists who overran them in the civil war? It means that not too much should be asked of someone reporting such stories. The fact that we cannot mourn every dead person equally is a constant of survival that journalists are not exempt from. And even the most selfless Doctors Without Borders medic, the bravest men of the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) will try to avoid rifle fire and roofs collapsing on them at the last moment.

But like the Doctor Without Borders, like the THW man, like the Unicef representative in Rwanda, there are fortunately quite a few journalists who are capable of empathy. The charge of sensationalism does not apply to them. They are not intoxicating themselves, they are reporting. They are not showcasing, they are participating. They don’t just do a routine job, they take the time to learn the routine. They don’t steal stories, they bring them to the public. And they go to the limit beyond which it becomes uncertain for them personally.

There is often something old-fashioned at play here: a sense of responsibility. When the German Embassy offered a vulnerable young journalist a seat on the plane during the heated phase of the Egyptian revolution, she said “thanks, but I have a job to do here.” When Gaddafi started shooting his own people, a 24-year-old resigned from his safe editorial job in Hamburg to go to Libya. A picture desk trainee took her first step into journalism without a safety net by choosing to cover the subject of abandoned children in Moldova.

And then there’s the story of Alice Smeets, a 21-year-old Belgian whose very first major feature won an award: a photograph of a girl in a snow-white dress, trudging through the garbage of a Haitian slum like a stubborn angel. Going to Haiti, one of the poorest and most tragic countries of the Western Hemisphere was Smeets’ personal decision after reading up on the history of this country.

She saved up for the trip, and went on her own to “where it hurts.” She met people who fought their hunger pangs with “mud cake” – salted, baked earth – and people trying to survive from the sale of individual matches. She went into disastrous hospitals, orphanages, and even into the morgues of the central hospital in the capital Port-au-Prince where she saw sights “not for the fainthearted”: corpses that nobody wanted or was able to raise money to bury.

The suspicion from people she met that she may have been using images of such misery to get “rich” in Europe impelled her to return to Belgium and then raise money for the people of Haiti. On a second trip to the Caribbean island she distributed the money to hospitals and on the street. And of course she didn’t get “rich.” Smeets says the magazines she offered her material to publish it was “too sad for their readers.”

This is not an ode or a hymn. Just a small thank-you to those who try with camera and words to draw attention to what we do not know. And sometimes don’t want to know. Because when poverty has no grace, when poverty is just poverty, it ultimately besets and oppresses us. It is disturbing to see orphans with cleft palates lying in a dirt backyard. It makes you angry to see 12-year-old girls who have been forced into marriage looking into the camera with lifeless eyes, standing next to geriatric pashas.

At the same time, however, these images are the leavening for that sense of community that could turn us into a global family. A reminder of what is on the agenda.

So a media company’s agenda also includes the following: We must invest in motivated people, not just in concepts. Creative surprises are needed at least as much as organizational charts; uncommon people acting on their convictions are more essential than graph paper. And with all due respect to the services of facilitators, planners and benchmarkers: Without journalists who leave the cleanroom environment of planning offices, commitment would remain bloodless, anemic. Master plans are only good if they do not stifle individuality, if agreed objectives don’t become a crust that confines interpersonal instincts and spontaneity, burying the impulse to get involved. Across the street. And around the world.

Peter-Matthias Gaede is Editor-in-Chief of Gruner + Jahr’s “Geo” magazine and is personally involved in the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).