Weekly Roundup: Jill Stein’s SRI Controversy; Culture Change as Opportunity; Mobile Money’s Hungry
Sure, it pales in comparison to the bombshells dropped on her major party competitors. But Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein found herself in a bit of hot (OK, lukewarm) water recently over a surprising revelation: Her investments apparently don’t align with her values. Or, as The Daily Beast put it in a much-discussed (by third-party standards) article, “The holier-than-thou Green Party candidate rails against Big Carbon, big banks, Big Pharma – while she holds substantial investments in them.”
At issue are Stein’s six-figure investments in mutual funds that maintain stakes in the same companies and industries she’s criticized. In one particularly telling example, she has publicly advocated for total divestment from fossil fuels, and has called for Exxon to get the (corporate) death penalty for its “climate-change fraud” – but meanwhile, she has invested $995,011 to $2.2 million in funds like the Vanguard 500, which includes Exxon and other fossil-fuel behemoths like Chevron and Conoco Phillips. The article goes on to detail other progressive bogeymen lurking in her mutual funds – and there are several, from Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo to tobacco giant Philip Morris and military contractor Raytheon.
Stein’s response to the criticism sounded convincing, on first blush: “Like many Americans … my finances are largely held in index funds or mutual funds over which I have no control in management or decision-making,” she said in a prepared statement. “Sadly, most of these broad investments are as compromised as the American economy – degraded as it is by the fossil-fuel, defense and finance industries. … The Daily Beast is suggesting that participating in the American economy is incompatible with working to change it. This is comparable to the position taken by anti-climate change press (like at Fox News) who say that riding in a car or airplane means you cannot criticize fossil fuels.” She added that she has explored more socially responsible funds, but hasn’t found any that meet her ethical standards.
Yet to many, these excuses don’t hold water. As multiple commentators quickly pointed out, ethics-focused investors actually have plenty of sustainable and profitable options these days. As SRI-focused financial planner Patrick Costello argued, “In 2016, there are numerous innovative fund families offering hundreds of excellent sustainable, ESG-screened funds to the public – funds with strong track records and excellent Morningstar ratings that are easily found once investors know that they exist.” Another online pundit put it somewhat more bluntly: “Wealthy Americans whining ‘I’m not responsible’ and ‘my personal actions don’t matter’ are wiping out species after species … Our choices f*cking matter. The one person on the planet who should be challenging that attitude is Jill Stein.”
This episode may seem like a tempest in a particularly small teapot, compared to the tumultuous nature and vastly higher stakes of the broader campaign. But it could signal an important shift: While there’s nothing new about political candidates’ investments drawing scrutiny and criticism, especially if they imply a conflict of interest, the bar for what’s considered ethical is clearly rising. With the burgeoning availability of sustainable investment options, and the growing public awareness of these options, it seems likely that in the near future, candidates (at least on the left) will feel compelled to fully embrace SRI throughout their portfolios to avoid bad press. So the fact that Stein was so thoroughly raked over the coals over mutual funds could represent a milestone of sorts for the sector – and before she decides to run again, as Costello put it, she’d be wise to get a new investment advisor.
‘This is a More Formal Way’
Want a clear demonstration of why local context is so important for those hoping to do business at the base of the pyramid? Read on.
Katharine Houreld wrote for Reuters this week about “harambees” – Swahili for “let’s pull together” – where poor Kenyans have long gathered to solicit donations to cover things like medical and funeral costs. In other words, harambees served as insurance. The system functioned reasonably well until recently, Houreld writes, when changing attitudes and rising disposable incomes signaled the end of the harambee culture and opened opportunities for, among others, formal life insurance firms.
“We have been here two weeks trying to raise money,” Ezra Rahedi told Houreld, while at a harambee in Nairobi looking for help to bury a relative. “If we had insurance, we could have had (the funeral) already.”
Life insurance companies have noted the opportunity. “In our African culture, a problem is communal. (But) this culture is dying,” said Elijah Wachira, managing director of the insurance firm CIC. “We go to the bottom of the pyramid and tell them, ‘This is a more formal way.'” That’s why agents from CIC and other firms are showing up, and speaking up, at harambees.
It seems ironic that the way forward – the formal way – was illuminated not by technology but by knowing what neighbors are saying informally amongst each other.
Mobile Money is Eating Remittance Fees
“Mobile money is driving a price revolution in international remittances,” writes Nika Naghavi, data manager for the Mobile Money Programme at the GSMA, a trade group representing mobile operators. It’s a strong claim – in fact it’s the title of a new report from GSMA. But the research appears to back it up. After exploring the World Bank’s database of worldwide remittance prices, the GSMA report concludes:
“Using mobile money is, on average, more than 50 percent cheaper than using global money transfer operators (MTOs). In the 45 country corridors surveyed, the average cost of sending $200 using mobile money was 2.7 percent, compared to 6.0 percent using global MTOs. Lower transaction fees can translate directly into additional income for remittance recipients.”
MTOs are lowering their prices in response. And lower transaction costs mean more money in the pockets of those receiving remittances: low-income people who are already underserved.
Shifting From ‘Any Drug or Vaccine is Good’
“We have shifted from ‘any drug or vaccine is good’ to ‘what will be a game changer’” in ending the disease forever by 2040, said David Brandling-Bennett, senior adviser for malaria at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Even as mosquitos worldwide are developing greater drug resistance, “Seattle’s malaria-fighting community is developing innovations ranging from data modeling and genetic modification to single-dose drugs and sugar traps,” Reuters reports. Led by Gates, they’re thinking big, taking on issues like funding, market dynamics, health worker shortages and ethics.
Importantly, a strategy and an economy of scale is developing among Seattle’s malaria fighters, and that can only spell bad news for disease-carrying mosquitos around the world.
Solar Investment Surge
This week saw two prominent for- profit solar access enterprises landing significant financial rounds. They included d.light, which raised $7.5 million in a debt financing round from investment management firm Developing World Markets. As VentureBeat reported, d.light is now looking into a solar-powered TV to add to its product suite of lamps and chargers, but details are sketchy on a go-to-market strategy. Meanwhile, PEG Africa, which provides financing for solar products to low-income households, announced it had secured a $1.5 million debt raise to procure solar home systems in Ghana. It follows a $7.5 million equity round PEG closed in June. PEG has set a goal of providing financing to 500,000 households, made of mostly low-income consumers, with pay-as-you-go solar systems in West Africa by 2020. Also this month, the International Energy Agency confirmed something that PEG and d.light managers probably already know: The world reached a tipping point on renewables in 2015. The IEA issued a report showing global capacity for renewable energy outpaced coal-fired power for the first time last year, becoming the largest source of installed power capacity in the world.