Economy of Communion: What is it and its Future

Interview with Lawrence Chong by Croatian Catholic weekly “Glas Koncila” (The Voice of the Council)

Q: How do you combine the concepts of economics and communion? Usually these are opposites if we look at today’s economy dominated by profit and individualism.

A: I would say that initially, in 1991, when Chiara Lubich proposed this concept of combining economics and communion, she was way ahead of her time. But nowadays, a lot of prominent business leaders like Ray Dalio and economists are saying that economics, interconnectedness, which is the heart of communion, is not only needed, they are necessary, or else our economic system will fail. 

Jeffrey Sachs one of the world’s most prominent economists and also a lead proponent for sustainable development said at the London School of Economics in 2016:

“We’re so rich in our total production and in our capacities to do things that we could solve absolutely fundamental challenges, such as ending extreme poverty or addressing climate change or preserving biodiversity without much effort. Our problem is we don’t even know what we want to do as a society. My profession is pretty useless on this, just horrendously misguided in what it spends its time on. Because it spends its time on completely unimportant things and neglects the very important things… it cannot be the most important issue in the world whether the US grows at another 3% or 3.5% or 2.9% a year, when over the last 65 years there’s been no discernible rise in wellbeing and lots of discernible worsening of social wellbeing.” 

So for Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, this combining of Economy and well-being, which we define in the EoC as the concept of the communion of relationships and values matter for sustainable and sensible development. 

Q: What is the difference between a classic enterprise and an enterprise that operates under the criterion of The Economy of Communion?

A: A classic enterprise is a divided and unrealistic enterprise. In the classic sense, the enterprise treats everyone on the basis of productivity only. So long as you do your job in your area well and help the firm to make money, then you are doing your job. That is also why the department that oversees people is called human resources. It treats people as a commodity as if no creativity is possible. 

But in the real world and based on my professional experience in transforming companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in over 16 countries since 2004, I have always noticed these three invisible elements that are important. 

First, if you recognize that relationships matter in the organization, the culture would be more collaborative, hence more value-creation happens. When people are more individualistic, the company has to spend a lot more money on control and incentive to motivate staff. 

The second invisible element is whether there is a sense of higher purpose in the company beyond just monetary gain. If there is no sense of purpose, then it is hard to shape extraordinary performance, work becomes a burden. And again, in such a scenario, the classic enterprise without a higher purpose tends to have a lot of internal conflicts.

The third, invisible element, is whether the people in the enterprise care for the least, what is happening in society, and whether they want to do more for others. If there is a sense of care for others, then the ideas that are generated are far more sustainable and shapes long term value for the company. In a world of disruption, where it is easy to copy anyone, unique ideas can only come from a culture of care and holistic thinking. This is where care for others and society matters.

So an economy of communion enterprise is about being genuinely human recognizing the importance and the creative value of relationships, purpose, and care for others. And in being a 100% holistic enterprise, it is then able to invent practical ways to provide aid for the least and needy, those who need love, material means, and above all, a sense of dignity. 

The ambition of the Economy of communion is to nurture millions of enterprises of inspired humanity to bring about the end of poverty of not just goods but also of dignity. 

Q: What are the key concepts of the EoC, what is the basis and goal of this type of economy? Is this model universally accepted or is it more common in certain parts of the world?

A: Since 1991, there has been an explosion of the Economy of communion enterprises experimenting with a variety of business models to bring about a sense of family in an enterprise and to be in service to the least. We are now present in all the continents with the one aim of bringing about a united world through the economy and end the stigma of poverty. But to achieve this goal, it cannot start with money; it is about an entire systemic change of hearts and minds. The first step of the Economy of Communion is to put people, relationships at the heart of the enterprise and economic system. And this starts with recognizing that everyone is a gift and has the capacity to give, this then shapes a virtuous and generous cycle of giving in terms of talent, goods and time. I would say that the most important characteristic of an EoC enterprise is this culture of giving and generosity, which generates life, ideas, and inclusion.  

Q: In recent years, the EoC has seen a new leap in development. What is it about, what is your focus now?

A: I believe we can credit this new leap in development to Pope Francis, who understood the charismatic gift of the concept of the Economy of Communion(EoC). In 2017 when he met the global EoC movement in Rome during our 25th-anniversary celebration, he gave us a new mission when he said this: “The Economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the Economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full. Therefore, we must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system. Imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough.”

Pope Francis comments have sent us into a soul-searching phase and also an explosion of new initiatives. Since then, we aim to grow and enlarge our partnerships with many other influential thinkers and movements to bring about a new economic system. From the Prophetic Economy meeting in 2018 and now in 2020, the Francesco Economy, which will gather 2,000 young economists, entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners in November, the global movement of the EoC is charging ahead to build a worldwide network of partners to enable this global Economy of communion. 

Q: The EoC is a living example of Chiara Lubich’s idea and the Focolare movement. Is the idea in the rise, fall or stagnation? Did the idea “slow down” with the death of Lubich? Does community economics have a future and how do you see it?

A: I would say that it is very much on the rise as a newer generation of Economy of Communion professors, entrepreneurs and professionals are taking on the leadership role now. As I shared earlier, Pope Francis has fired us up as he understood very well the charismatic gift of the Focolare’s charism of unity and the spiritual ambition of Chiara Lubich. In fact, the Pope is pushing us to go faster. I would say some within our network were not as brave, but now collectively, we are. 

We also have a thriving incubator program for young people. From the Americas, Europe, and Africa, many young people are learning about the principles of the Economy of Communion and applying them. And with the Francesco Economy, we will have a growing movement of youth who do not belong to the Focolare, but they share in the mission of changing the economic system for good. 

At the same time, the Economy of Communion is receiving a new impetus of appreciation from leaders such as President Matarella of Italy and Nobel winners such as Mohamed Yunus.

So from the perspective of youth and development of thought, the sky is the limit here.

Q: Does the EoC have an idealistic approach or are there examples in practice? Is this concept realistic in the real world and how challenging is it to act on these principles?

A: All economic theory begins as a form of idealism too, so EoC is not unique and an upgrade in terms of where the economic system can evolve into. 

The fact that many EoC enterprises have lasted for decades proves that it works, and actually, it gives an enterprise a unique advantage; that joy at work is possible and can generate results. There are so many examples; Our consulting firm is already 16th year in the business. There is a large micro-credit bank in the Philippines, Bangko Kabayan that has won some of the best business awards of the country and featured on the Wall Street Journal. 

Initially, when I started the business in 2004, it was challenging as I had to be careful not to say too much about it as people would think that it is too idealistic. But in just a couple of years, I realized so many business leaders are wary if you are just talking about money, they want to know if you have unique values and beliefs. And Asia where I started, it is a region very focused on making money, there is also corruption in many countries. So I would say that in environments where there is little trust and too much focused on money, when you suddenly bring in a values-driven approach, people immediately sense and value the difference. I remember so many moments where I won a project because people felt that our team was sincere; they could not explain why, but they felt it. Later, when we explained about the Economy of communion, they understood. 

Then you ask, are the principle of the EoC practical. Certainly yes. 

For example, in managing people, if you take an effort to understand the hopes and concerns of your talent, you are best able to help them exceed and excel. Then in making money and you put into consideration how you can help others from the inside-out, it makes you more deeply aware of the impact of your enterprise, and it also brings out opportunities for innovation or expansion in terms of business growth. Lastly, in the Economy of communion, we believe in the importance of Providence as feedback to see if we are on the right track. And I have found that this is hugely reliable in doing anything in business. So the key is to apply and not overthink, with more application, then one sees a clear and pragmatic path to creative and sustainable growth. 

Q: Many call for an alternative to capitalism. How is it possible to change the economic system? How to bring about the systemic change?

A: Many are calling for an alternative to capitalism or to improve capitalism because it is not working anymore. The current system entrenches the rich and is no longer effective in growing the middle class. Essentially if we want to end poverty and a sustainable planet, we need a sustainable and new type of middle class. We need to support individual choices while at the same time, enable interconnectedness while ensuring that we do not kill our planet. So there is the convergence of human and planet approach that is needed. How we have been doing this is at four levels:

New Economic theory and tools 

The global network of professors in the Economy of communion network led by Professor Luigino Bruni has been developing and implementing a vast library of thoughts and tools of what this alternative Economy would look like and behave. These thoughts and tools formed a foundational theory for economic and market change

2) New Economic practice

The global network of entrepreneurs then apply and share their case studies and be available for research and assessment. These entrepreneurs become prototypes to prove that the theories do work and can overcome inequality

3) New Economic culture

Then through schools, universities, public education initiatives, we are trying to influence a new economic culture that prefers sharing, respect human dignity, and preservation of the earth. 

4) Economic networks of influence

We are a small global network, so through the Prophetic Economy, through the Francesco Economy, we are partnering with leaders of influence to amplify the solutions and movement towards an alternative economic system.

Q: There are many ideas, books on economics; there are different solutions. Why are you convinced that the EoC is the answer to the present situation?

A: We support any economic ideas that share the belief that we need to put humanity at its heart, that interconnectedness is essential; hence poverty does not make sense. I think as the Economy of Communion; we realized that our greatest gift is the ability to bring people from a great variety of diversity to come together and make this work.

Q: The EoC was created under the auspices of the Church, but how much does it live in church structures? Are believers and entrepreneurs familiar with it, do they follow its principles?

A: The Church has a long history of Popes providing their thoughts on how the Economy can shape common good; one would remember Rerum Novarum of 1891 about labour and dignity of work then Centesimus Anus by Pope John Paul in 1991, and of course Caritas in Veritate in 2009 by Pope Benedict where he called for shaping the common good. Many experts outside the Church have been inspired by Catholic social teaching(CST), and CST has also helped to shape ethical norms in business too. Just like how Laudato Si by Pope Francis has inspired many non-Catholics to do something exceptional to save our planet.

I think in reading about the Economy of Communion, many people see this great harmony, or I would say honestly admit that human values need to be at the heart of the business. It is just natural instead of the current norm in a classical business where people just assume that business is only about working hard for money alone. Because of technology and how much of the massive growth in business today is linked to innovation and ideation, then an economy based on humanity, dignity, and respect of one another as called for by the Church through the decades, is not only sensible, it is essential.

Q: You have set up a consultancy together with people who do not share your religious views. Why did you decide to make this move, how much harder or easier to work with?

A: In Singapore, Christianity is a minority, so it is our environment. But I have found such harmony in working with my partners of different faiths, it has been a joy. Plus, it proves that the Economy of Communion can work not just for Christians but also for those of other faith and those without religious belief. And when you have the Economy of communion as a culture, a lot of surprising and miraculous things happen. Once I was distraught with a client, and I was complaining, then one of my business partner, who has no religious belief, she listened to me. After listening for 10 minutes, she replied, maybe you did not love enough. I was shocked by her wise words, and she was right. Probably even my Catholic friends would not have given this response, but just to say that the EoC culture creates a very unique and wise environment that is deeply spiritual too in a unique way. In our company, I can easily do the sign of the cross and pray, and no one is surprised. Similarly, my Muslim partner feels comfortable to pray five times a day in the office. I think very few working environments will let you express your faith openly in a religious manner, but for us, it is normal.

Q: In how many companies have you managed to deliver your services? What are your most common doubts when you present the EoC to governance structure?

A: We never present EoC as a standard but as a service or a loving principle. When it is seen as a solution to bring people better together, it is always welcomed. Once we were working on a massive urban development project and we explained our method for community development based on the EoC, the client and the consultants were deeply impressed at the love and depth of thought we put into this approach. So this helped us explain how we deliver sustainability by shaping communities of purpose and unity. 

Q: A youth conference organized by Pope Francis was to be held in Assisi at the end of March. Are young people educated enough about economic and financial concepts? What could the Church do in this regard?

A: The event has now been postponed till the 21st of November due to the Covid-19 crisis. It will still be held in Assisi. I am not worried about the youth today because they are highly intelligent about economic issues, and they demand facts, solutions, not just words. 

I think what we need is to trust the youth and respect their competence. Many times when I am involved in a conference of youth, they are savvy with tech and access to information, so they think in terms of clicks and data. But what they might lack is patience, attention, and wisdom on relationships. I believe the Church needs to respect the youth with the dignity they deserve but not be afraid to bring in the depth of thinking and wisdom that the Church has in its treasury of faith. I can see how Pope Francis and the bishops did this very well with the synod on youth in terms of their engagement. Then the Church need not be afraid to call the youth to aim high and entrust to them new missions in the digital age. Just like how Popes of the past sent young missionaries out. We need to have the same trust and courage in the creative capacity of the youth to do the same. I believe Pope Francis knows this very well; that is why he intentionally called only the young economists, entrepreneurs, and professionals to Assisi because he trusts that they are competent and capable of this new mission, to change the global economic system for good. 

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