Sir Bob Geldof Lectures the Bankers

When I heard Sir Bob Geldof was to be keynote speaker at the 2009 FT Sustainable Banker awards this past Thursday I was a little cynical. But after about the first 2 minutes of his speech of close to 25 minutes, I was impressed. He mixed humour and pathos, tied to the audience and to FT’s editor Lionel Barber on stage, and gently challenged the audience. I wonder when last bankers in the room had pondered millions in Eastern Ethiopia not eating as they eased through the three course meal..? Sir Bob is an entertainer (remember "I Don't Like Mondays"?); he can work a crowd.

He probably enjoyed himself. The Irish sparkle lurked in the smiles and dramatic pauses. The silver hair falling over his eyes gave him a professorial visage. Some of the same talking points Bob had covered in the FT editorial earlier around the G20, The Poor Must Be Included in the Global Economy, and a flavour is given in this Live8 intro. The 300-odd banker types in the room were transfixed. At one point when he referenced the stupidity of famine in the world, referenced Africa being just 8 miles away from Europe, and spoke of a lifeboat that sustainability needs to be rowing the planet away from disaster. You could have heard a pin drop.

The one-day conference and awards ceremony in a posh hotel in London is presented by the IFC with the FT adding media and conference organization. The IFC VP Rache Kyte has been instrumental, driven by the IFC Environment and Social Development Department. FT Sustainable Banker aims to showcase best practice in sustainable banking, and hopefully to pull banks toward better action. Sinclair & Company was there to plan ahead for 2010 with a client. The conference can do better matching the reality of making sustainability happen with the event: for example getting to a hotel with better sustainability credentials, sorting organic foods, and empowering local communities with jobs to host it. There is a gap between presenting the show, and how the event can lead by example. As one speaker commented, it is about solid banking firstly, but also being more than just a few nice good examples. It must help lift the bar. Now in its fourth year, the awards have increased, covering a range of areas, including some more broadly financial services than simply banks as lending institutions. This year for example acknowledgements were to mobile phone banking firm WIZZIT from South Africa and small-and-growing segment financial advisory firm Root Capital out of Cambridge Massachusetts USA. The conference had mixed panels, some content better than others. It would be more useful than talking shop if the audience input was captured in a structured and live way, using new technologies for audience input.

The awards ceremony was worth staying for. Our table – table 9 in 2009 – turns out had almost as many rockstars as the keynote has on his rolodex. At our table the winning Asian bank, Industrial Bank of China, the leading Latin American bank, Itau Unibanco of Brazil, and later the overall emerging markets bank of the year, I am sure Penny, Bouwe and I helped our Table 9 convince the good judges somehow, yes?! The right firms won. In a reminder that these showcases may have larger impacts, and the importance of running a tournament strategically well-thought out and executed, my network was buzzing from late afternoon that NGOs such as Bankwatch had already come back hard on the IFC FT shortlisting Deutsche Bank for the overall prize. Awards may be serious business, and choosing shortlists requires good judges. Knowing what a grim year it has been for colleagues trying to make sustainability happen in financial services, it was good to celebrate Triodos winning, with Standard Chartered runners up.  And of course, the award was the main item on Triodos UK's website shortly afterward. Rightly so.