Assuaging Liberal Guilt

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.

In an earlier post, I pondered the motivation for seeking a life of self-employment. I concluded that, for me, it was more about freedom than anything else. I suspect, however, that for many, the primary lure is a payday that is potentially grander than would have otherwise been possible through traditional employment.

As much as the lure is the potential for wealth, the terror of self-employment is the uncertainty of work: will I make enough to pay the bills this week? The temptation is strong, therefore, to view each contract as merely an avenue of avoiding, for another month at least, starvation (and, worse yet, return to the employed life).

How to respond, then, when the receipt of payment brings with it an ethical thorn?

I have a client in the poor nation of Kenya, for whom I recently completed some scientific work. The client is a non-profit NGO committed to combatting HIV/AIDS among the mostly rural poor of that besieged African nation. Knowing this, the fee schedule I presented to them was much denuded from my regular rates. Still, the total I would need to charge for my few weeks of work would exceed the yearly wages of many of that nation’s workers.

How could I bring myself to extract so much wealth from an organization that would surely otherwise use those funds to effect much good, at orders of magnitude greater than could be done in Canada?

Yes, the client had agreed upon my rates before I commenced the work. Yes, the work was completed satisfactorily, though a litte beyond the agreed upon schedule. In terms of strict business ethics, I was perfectly within my rights to issue an invoice for the agreed upon sum.

Yet, to be completely candid, I don’t need the money. Other (local) clients, whom I bill at much greater rates, more than make up for any cash shortfall represented by my lost fees through the Kenyan client. So, again, can I ethically accept this money, knowing that I would not miss it, and that it would otherwise be spent to great positive effect in Africa?

There is a greater ethical issue that speaks to the impact of globalisation: the trend of moving foreign currency from developing nations, thus exacerating the widening rift between rich nations and poor. Instead of employing a foreign “expert” to do the work, the Kenyans should have sought local expertise; surely it exists somewhere in that great nation. And instead of allowing them to employ me, perhaps it would have been more appropriate to have insisted that they find local expertise, and offered my support in a cheaper, supervisory capacity, thus effecting some knowledge transfer into that knowledge-hungry country.

These mental gymnastics were not furthering my search for a solution to my ethical question. So, in the end, I chose to issue an invoice… with a healthy 20% discount to assuage my liberal guilt. Is the best solution? Clearly not. But it will do for now.