Stopping Investment in Sudan Activists Use Tools of Capitalism to Fight Darfur Genocide
The non-profit organization Investors Against Genocide is trying to dissuade Americans from investing in companies that help fund the genocide in Darfur. But, as a recent shareholder meeting showed, not everyone wants to put principle before profit.
In her career as a family lawyer, Mary Haskell made good money and saved enough to be able to retire at 60. Her husband, a doctor and chain smoker, is already dead, and her sons no longer live in the family home in Lexington, Massachusetts. "I needed something to do," she says.
First Haskell joined a book group, whose members had spent years reading and discussing Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." "But it wasn't enough for me," she says.
Then a friend took her along to a talk about the situation in Sudan's wartorn Darfur region. "I knew from the newspapers what was happening there, but that evening I realized I didn't know anything," she recalls.
Now, two years later, Haskell is at a shareholder meeting in Boston. She steps up to take the cordless microphone, and asks a question. "Why isn't Exxon, an American company, allowed to do business in Sudan, while Fidelity is allowed to invest in funds that have shares in companies involved with the Sudanese government, like Petrochina?" She has summed up the problem in a nutshell.
"You can picture it as a doll inside a doll," she explains. Fidelity is an investment trust managing assets worth billions, which come from companies, institutions and private investors like Mary Haskell and her late husband. Fidelity invests this money in funds that have in turn invested their capital in businesses around the world. In this way Haskell too has a share in Petrochina, a Chinese company that buys crude oil from Sudan. "The revenue from this business helps the Sudanese government finance the genocide in Darfur," she says.
Like Selling Zyklon-B to the Nazis
In a bid to help stop the bloodbath, Haskell registered for a recent Fidelity Trust shareholder meeting. The meeting was held on Aug. 14 in a conference room in a high-rise in Boston, next to the city's South Station. Theoretically, it could just as well have been held in the coffee shop next door, since aside from Haskell and her seven friends from the non-profit organization Investors Against Genocide, no other investors showed up.
Nonetheless, the small group was taken very seriously. The windowless conference room was under tight security. The visitors had to go through a metal detector and leave their cameras and cassette recorders at the entrance. Inside, the investors weren't even offered a glass of mineral water -- a gesture that was hard to misinterpret.
Across from the Investors Against Genocide representatives, who spread themselves out across the room, five company representatives were also present, sitting at a podium. They included an "independent trustee," and also the chief legal officer of the Fidelity Funds, who officially represented not Fidelity itself, but the funds the company manages.
At precisely 8:36 a.m., the speaker of the board opened the meeting and announced at the outset that it would end after 30 minutes. The agenda contained only one item: "genocide-free investing."
After clearing up a few procedural questions, the chairman turned the floor over to Eric Cohen, the founder of Investors Against Genocide. The visibly nervous Cohen read his statement from a sheet of paper. "Many would suppose that today, 64 years after the end of the Holocaust and 15 years after the genocide in Rwanda, no company which values the public's trust would attempt to profit from connections to genocide," he began. "Looking back, who would invest in firms that sought to profit by selling Zyklon-B gas to the Nazis or machetes for the genocide in Rwanda?"
Six years after the start of the bloodshed in Darfur and five years after it was recognized as genocide by the US Congress, Cohen said, "we see that this problem is neither theoretical nor historical."
'We Are Not Naive'
Eric Cohen split his 10 minutes of speaking time with Tim Brennan, chief financial officer of the Unitarian Universalists, one of the United States' oldest churches, whose founders arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers. The church's retirement fund had invested about $140 million (95 million) with Fidelity. Like Cohen, Brennan was of the opinion that the investment company should steer well clear of funds and companies that profited directly or indirectly from the genocide.
"You should know two things about Unitarian Universalists," he told the board sitting in front of him. "First, as a faith community we are called to ask questions about the moral ramifications of the decisions we make as an institution." That included investment decisions, he said. "Second, we are not naïve," he continued. "We know that Fidelity is not a faith-based enterprise. But we believe that this issue goes beyond most social and environmental concerns. This is genocide."
The representatives of Fidelity and the funds it manages, four men and one woman, listened politely and patiently. But if they could have read minds, Eric Cohen, Tim Brennan and the others would have saved themselves some time. The shareholder meeting in the Fidelity headquarters, it turned out, was a mere formality. At the end, the chief legal officer announced the results of the vote that had already taken place by e-mail, letter and telephone. More than three-quarters of Fidelity's shareholders had voted against a pullout from funds that invest in companies such as Petrochina or Sinopec.
Before this, however, the "independent trustee" explained his view of the matter. "There are so many things that trouble us," he said. "The treatment of women in Africa and the Middle East. We abide by the government's guidelines. They decide how far we can go." He concluded his statement with the comment that "more people die from smoking than from the genocide in Darfur."
The meeting ended at 9:24 a.m., having lasted 18 minutes longer than planned. Eric Cohen attributes this primarily to the presence of journalists in the room. "The Fidelity people wanted to show that they took our concerns seriously," he says. And the effort wasn't entirely in vain: "More than 20 percent of the shareholders are on our side." With a total of around 25 million shareholders, that means there are 5 million investors who care where they put their money. Eric Cohen himself doesn't have shares in Fidelity, but instead has the power of attorney from friends to act as a proxy shareholder.
After dropping out of Harvard and first taking on a plethora of odd jobs, Cohen spent more than 20 years in the IT industry, then retired at the age of just 51. For three years, he helped his wife around the house, and then founded Investors Against Genocide with two friends in 2006.
Looking back, Cohen finds it strange he didn't do this sooner. "I was too wrapped up in other things," he says. But one day, as he was in between two appointments, he realized he was prospering only because both his maternal and paternal grandparents had emigrated to the US early enough. Other relatives who remained in Lithuania, Bukovina or Ukraine didn't survive the Holocaust. "I take what's happening in Darfur very personally," he says.
And now he has a full-time job again, one he does from his home office. During his time in the IT sector he learned how to be pro-active, motivate others and network. Investors Against Genocide's electronic newsletter now goes out to 10,000 subscribers, and campaigns bring in up to 25,000 signatures.
The first tangible result came in July. The board of directors of the TIAA-CREF retirement fund, whose clients include mostly doctors, educators and professors, made a commitment that by the end of the year it would divest from any companies that didn't sever their Sudan connections.
Eric Cohen knows this won't end the genocide in Darfur. But it could save a few lives. And inspire other investors to follow suit.