To explore the “Athens Charter for Business”

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Much talk about democracy, as of lately.

The recent shocks arising out of the Ukraine war and the re-emergence of the West/East divide along lines of democracies vs. autocracies (with the former cosying up to the likes of Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, to be true) offers much to mull over. So have the elements of awakening due to the coronavirus pandemic and to the renewed awareness about inequality and its fallout on the effective functioning of economies and/or societies.

The approaches to the subject have been legion, ranging from political discourse, academic debate and civil society calls-to-arms to media chatter. Following the lead of the UN reflexion over SGDs – especially SCD16, calling for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, that is striving for “peaceful and inclusive society and building effective and accountable institutions at all levels” – there have been several efforts to build something tangible in that direction.

One such effort – the Democracy and Culture Foundation, building on the acquis of the Athens Democracy Forum (of N.Y. Times and Kathimerini memory) – has characteristically chosen as its rallying slogan “Think, Talk, Do”. In order to shift from the Think and Talk habit, which has more or less worn out its usefulness to the far more demanding Do dimension, the Foundation has tried to enlist the business community, as one closer to the drivers of change well as to efficacy. It has also turned to McKinsey, in order to professionalize the Foundation’s strategy.

[In the Leadership Council of the DCF one meets the likes of Ouided Boachamaui, 2015 Peace Nobel Laureate, Bernard Henri-Levy Philosopher/Activist, Mark Thomson Former President of the N.Y. Times, Hong Kong activist of the Umbrella Movement Nathan Lans, idiosynaratic artist Ai Weiwei, Fatima Zamam of the Kofi Annan Foundation; from the Greek side, George Papandreou, Achilles Constantakopoulos of TEMES, B. Gavalas of DICTYONetwork and George Tsopelas of McKinsey. In the operational Board of Governors, Anthony Kefalas, co-author of the McKinsey Strategy plan, along trustee Achilles Tsaltas, of Athens Democracy/N.Y. Times memory].

All of which may sound too much of background, when we just tried to showcase the “Do” element. So, let us bring to your attention an event that took place on July 15, in the very heart of Athens (with impregnable view to the Acropolis) but also with demonstrators streaming by, to discuss and build on “The Athens Charter for Business”.

The Athens Charter has outlined ten principles for business behavior, expected to feed into a decisive positive contribution to public life. From the very first Declaration of Purpose – companies are asked/expected to adopt governance structures that “include addressing inequality in their own operations, in their stakeholder relationships, and in society”. Sounds too demanding? Add to this – through Commitment to Change – the undertaking for “all-inclusive and inter-generational leadership […] to accept responsibility in creating sustainability and input”.

Such objectives should, always according to the Athens Charter, be achieved by mobilizing transparency, collaboration and culture change (through “organizational transcendental education”). Stakeholders and Community Participation is considered of capital importance; adherence to ESG Standards – Environmental/Social/Governance – and reporting about it is also included. Interestingly enough, in this age of extreme short-termism and financialization, the Athens Charter calls for Long-Term Value to be rediscovered, as well as for Value Chains to responsibly and transparently include externalities in their pursuit.

Anthony Kefalas set out the background to that call – because this is what the Athens Charter is, effectively.  P. Lampropoulou of the UN. Global Compact Network situated the discussion in the ongoing overall debate. G. Tsopelas, of McKinsey added an all-important element: proof that the implementation of such principles, (a) takes actually place, (b) ameliorates business performance in a measurable way. As Anthony Kefalas had already pointed out, the paradigm adhered to in the “Casino Capitalism” configuration of the last decades has exhausted its credibility. So, the business environment is receptive to such change/paradigm shift – but if proof of efficiency is not adduced, implementation of such a Code of Ethics (because this is what the “Athens Charter” amounts to) will remain slow and ambivalent.

Are such thoughts of relevance to the realities prevailing in Greece – where businesses lack size and where inward-looking attitudes persist? Pavlos Efthymiou, joining in from EENE (Greek Association of Business) candidly observed that the times we live through bring along their own convincing imperatives; Yannis Mastrogeorgiou, from the Strategic Foresight Unit of the Greek Government, expressed official concern over this debate.

So, an intermediate wind-up: If self-interest of business – as the McKinsey findings indicate – is really brought to the fore, such an approach to a broader reading of democracy-in-practice may well be a valuable contribution in quite troubled times.