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Social engagement

Nowadays, almost every major company tries to give itself a “social image”. In the process, money is donated for all kinds of things that sound good and hopefully relieve the world of its misery. On closer inspection, however, the question of the actual value of such a commitment may not be so clear-cut in the vast majority of cases. There are probably three basic questions: Firstly, whether the donation actually achieves what it is intended for. On the other hand, whether money is a suitable means of transporting goodwill, compassion or love at all, or whether the momentum of money does not make it more difficult for the victim to receive the service. Thirdly, of course, the question arises as to whether charity in itself makes any sense at all in today’s situation, or whether there are not better ways of putting one’s sense of responsibility and commitment into practice.

For high-end watch brands, the integration of the brand into a sponsorship structure plays a particularly important role. It is said that to keep a noble brand on the market, an annual advertising budget of at least 20 million dollars is needed. It is clear that only a very small part of such a budget is actually spent on “charity” or “sponsoring”. The advertising media, such as the media etc., usually devour the very largest part of the money spent.
After Niveau élevé always tries to look behind the surface, we face the question of the meaningfulness or senselessness of sponsoring for advertising purposes. Niveau élevé will not take part in the general material battle of advertising activity in the watch industry anyway, there is no question about that. But Niveau élevé will hopefully also earn money from the production of its watches and would like to use it as sensibly as possible. We assume that not only is the Niveau élevé brand not a standard brand, but that above all the wearers of our watches or jewellery tend to be people who enjoy questioning things and like to know more than usual. That’s why we share our thoughts on sponsorship and the implementation of our overarching goals with those who are interested in our brand.

Niveau élevé will certainly not spend money on billboards at airports or place full-page ads in fashion magazines. The generation of a need that is actually not there at all, the “creation” of an artificially maintained “flair” that actually has no substance but is a suggestion and thus an illusion, contradicts our basic philosophy. Either the brand’s basic concept of thought and style will find its “niche” in the psychological structure of a sufficient number of enthusiasts, or Niveau élevé will remain, stylishly and without much noise, an absolute insider brand that produces watches and jewellery in atelier style for a small circle of connoisseurs. Nevertheless, Niveau élevé will always be part of a group of companies and projects that are committed to certain goals and that seek the alternative in their orientation, not profit maximisation or a high share price. If Niveau élevé’s products generate profits, these will be used in the context of the projects carried out by the Niveau élevé group of companies.

But now to the actual topic of this chapter: the social commitment within the Niveau élevé brand, our experiences in this regard so far and our concept of achieving or promoting something close to our hearts.

The Niveau élevé brand ultimately emerged from two companies that form the core of a whole group of companies that are linked to each other under ownership law. One is the diamond cutting company Aditi Diamonds Pvt. Ltd. and the other is Gold-in-Glass Pvt. Ltd. In economic terms, these two companies are by far the smaller part of the group today. However, they are at the centre of the group with their knowledge, skills, and the opportunities that arise from them. In addition to the companies in Switzerland and at the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, the group also includes others, such as a philosophical publishing house in St. Petersburg, Russia, and companies active in the alternative energy sector.

From the very beginning, the basic philosophy and motivation of our work was not money or economic success. The saying of an Indian philosopher is actually the core statement that has always accompanied our work: “An aimless life is a miserable life. But when you define the goal of your life, make sure it is as high as possible. Because the quality of your life depends on the quality of your goal.” Being economically successful is certainly satisfying. But giving your life for it and slaving away day after day to end up somewhere in the middle of millions of companies that are just as successful was never interesting enough for us. It is much more interesting to try things that no one has tried or achieved before, or to base all work on an ethical code that does not put money first.

In the course of this, we tried out many things, socially, technically, aesthetically, in relation to the environment and philosophically. By far not everything we set out to do worked. But the inner fulfilment of a job and a life on the edge of the known and in the world of abstract values and ideas always seemed incomparably more valuable to us than monetary success. Thus we look back on a long series of experiences and experiments, which – successful or not – represent a treasure of experiences and knowledge. These not only outline our own inner, or consciousness landscape, but are thus also the basis for our goals and our work.

The experiments in the social sector were probably the ones that produced the least visible success. On the one hand, it is perhaps particularly difficult to implement cross-cultural social concepts. On the other hand, the success or failure of social engagement may not be seen in the short term, but in a longer-term context. But the social work in India, especially in the context of our diamond-cutting business, has made us very sceptical about the result of trying to implement a Western understanding of values in an Asian culture.

Most attempts to make a difference in the social sector took place in the early 1980s. A time when a very different cultural climate prevailed in southern India than it does now. The cultural contrast between West and East was much starker than it is today.
As our workers in the grinding factory in Pondicherry are partly from the surrounding villages, concerns from small communities were often brought to us. In 1982, we received a proposal from the village of Kottakarai, about 10 km north of Pondicherry: they tried to set up a small library where books could be lent to the villagers free of charge. A building for it had already been prepared, but what was still missing were the books. A sponsor has now been sought for this. We willingly provided the money and about 2000 books were bought in Madras (now Chennai), mostly in Tamil, the local language. But as soon as the books arrived in Kottakarai, the drama began. Two groups crystallised in the village, fighting over who would be allowed to bind the books in plastic and run the library. As long as the dispute was not resolved, nothing progressed with the project and eventually one of the two parties went to court and sued to be allowed to manage the company. The court issued an order that no one was allowed to enter the library space until a court decision was made. But the library building was a simple but large hut, built with granite piles between which mud walls stretched up to the wooden roof truss, which supported a kind of thatched roof. In such a building, one has to keep an eye out for termites every day, otherwise what had to happen happened: about 6 weeks later, the termites had not only eaten all the books, but also the roof truss of the building. As a result, the building collapsed and nothing remained of the project but a legal dispute between two hostile groups of villagers.

From the village of Edayanschavadi, also a little north of Pondicherry, the youth organisation approached us with the request to help the village to fortify the village pond. At that time (beginning of the 80’s) there were no individual toilets or running water in a village like Edayanchavadi. People washed their clothes in the village pond, sometimes bathed there and took water for all kinds of purposes. Drinking water or water for cooking was fetched every morning by the women from a hand pump in the village square. The village pond therefore had a very important function for the families of the village. The problem with this was that in southern India 85 % of the annual rainfall falls in the monsoon from late October to early December. During this time, the village pond must fill up and then hold its water until the beginning of the next monsoon, if possible. During a strong monsoon, however, the village pond overflowed. And this then usually meant that the dam around the village pond softened and broke at the point of overflow. Thus, the pond ran dry and the village faced a year without enough water.

The suggestion of the youth organisation was now that we should provide the material for a controlled overflow. The village youth would do the work and granite stones and concrete would be used to fix the dam of the pond at the back, about 30 cm below the other top of the dam, so that in case of a strong monsoon, the excess water can drain away without breaking the dam.

No sooner said than done, we provide one truck of granite paving stones, two trucks of gravel and enough sand and cement. On the first day, there were about 30 to 40 young people on site who started the work with verve and verve. On the second day only 3 people came, on the third day nobody came at all. When we asked what was going on, we were told that they wanted money for the work they had done. But that was not our agreement, so we refused to pay the village youth. The result was that no one showed up to finish the project. So we put two “Watchmen” by the material so that it wouldn’t be stolen as well and waited. Nothing happened. After a month, we asked what the village youth’s ideas were for completing the work. The demands were astronomical. They wanted about three times the wage per day compared to the normal wage of skilled bricklayers. We refused. After nothing happened again, we did not want to let the provided material go to waste and hired a team of bricklayers from the neighbouring village to build the overflow. But the people of Edayanchavady threatened the masons from the neighbouring village that they would kill them if they worked in Edayanchavady. So the plan failed. In order to save what could be saved, after a long wait we finally agreed to pay three times the wages of a normal bricklayer for the unskilled youths and the controlled overflow was more or less finally built before the onset of the monsoon. However, this was the last of several projects in which we financed initiatives from villages.

Another project, in which we agreed to build two batteries of women’s toilets for the village of Bommayapalayam on the coast north of Pondicherry, already failed due to the resistance of some inhabitants of the same village, and a project in which we replaced a village hand pump well with a well with an electric pump and a water tank did not have a very satisfactory outcome in the end.

However, there was one project in the village environment that can be called a success. We set up an evening school for children who had to work during the day to help feed their families. At that time, there were many “farmers without land” in the villages. These were families who had one or two cows and a few goats or sheep, but no land of their own. Therefore, one or two children of the family had to drive the animals during the day along the roadsides where there was occasionally something green to eat, quickly into a field if the farmer was not paying attention, or into a private garden. Be that as it may, the children’s task was to come back in the evening with the animals all together and as full as possible. The lean cows then gave one or two litres of milk and the goats were sold from time to time. This was an important extra income to support the family, for which usually one or two children could not go to school. Compulsory education and a ban on child labour existed even then, but these laws could not really be enforced due to the financial plight of the rural population. Today it is different, India has made huge progress in this regard.
Our school project now offered those children from two villages who had to work during the day the opportunity to go to school for a few hours in the evening to learn to read and write, not only in Tamil, the local language, but also in English. This offer was very well received and since we provided both the building and the teachers, there were no administrative problems. The difference to the other projects was that here we had everything in our own hands and did not depend on the cooperation of local groups.

Other organisations that tried to help with donations on a larger scale did not fare much differently from us. There was a construction project in the early 1980s on the northern outskirts of Pondicherry, where about 50 small houses were built for homeless families in Pondicherry. The settlement was meant for rickshaw drivers who did not have a roof over their heads, whose family lived on a blanket on the street and whose rickshaw and the muscle power of the family father were the only income. According to the then German Consul General, Mr Merten, the settlement was built mainly with money from the organisation Bread for the World. Unfortunately, the project was not accepted in any way. No one ever moved into the houses. Either the rickshaw drivers preferred to live on the road in Pondicherry where they had water from the nearest hydrants and where their workplace, the road, was. Or there were some local political disputes that prevented the settlement from ever being occupied. In any case, the houses stood empty for years until they fell into disrepair and the old bricks were stolen at night. At some point, all traces of the houses freshly built a few years ago had disappeared, and only thorny bushes grew on the former settlement site.

But it was not only outside our companies that we encountered problems in the area of social engagement. Even within our own production facilities, not everything in this area went as we had imagined. Towards the end of the 1980s to the mid-1990s, we employed up to 300 diamond cutters in Aditi Diamonds. From the beginning, we made no distinction between female and male workers and set a very high standard as admission criteria for new applicants. We required at least 10 years of schooling to train someone as a skilled worker. So our employees were definitely people with a relatively high level of education.
It soon became apparent that the women were the more concentrated workers. Since we paid a relatively high remuneration per piece of cut diamonds on top of the already quite good basic salary, the female workers, once they were well trained, eventually earned more than their male colleagues, since they produced a higher number of pieces. The first time a woman in the company had more than the men in her pay packet, the men went on strike and refused to accept her pay. We ignored this and at some point the workers had to swallow the situation and forgot their resentment. However, the situation flared up again when we promoted one of the best workers to a “junior supervisor”. Now a hitherto unknown situation prevailed in our company. A young woman supervised and instructed her male colleagues and was responsible for the work of about 10 workers. This not only triggered a strike at the factory, but also anonymous threatening letters to the management, confronting the manager with death threats and all sorts of things. Again, we just stubbornly implemented our Western ideas of gender equality and stood firm. At some point, the workers also had to swallow this bitter pill and production operations ran smoothly again with women and men as supervisors.

What we had not considered, however, was the social structure of the individual families. Slowly we wondered why our girls and women were getting older and not marrying at the rate one would expect. In India at that time, it was a great financial burden for a family to marry off their daughters. On the one hand, the woman’s family had to pay a so-called “Dhauri” to the man’s family. This was a considerable sum of money, comparable to the dowry in European countries. But this dowry was much more difficult to raise, considering the financial circumstances of the families in India. In addition, the daughters married out of the family and changed their residence to the husband’s extended family. They were thus lost to their parental extended family as a source of income. All in all, if a daughter had a super income, the family’s motivation to marry her off became very low. However, since in India children do not marry themselves but are only married off by their parents, the phenomenon arose that we probably did not pave a bright future for quite a few women workers with their salary, which is very unusual for women, but instead screwed up their lives because their families did not marry them off anymore.

Today, the situation in India is not the same as it was then. Young people are more self-confident and women’s equality is far advanced compared to the 80s and 90s. But one clear conclusion remains from all our efforts in the social field: Cross-cultural engagement based on Western values and thinking is in almost all cases doomed to fail in a completely different culture. In a differently structured society, despite good will, one’s own moral or ethical values and with money, one cannot implement what one imagines.

A very blatant example of this conclusion is an incident that took place in our grinding shop in 1984. Pondicherry was the only French colony on Indian soil and therefore has several Catholic churches and also schools run by religious brothers. The schools are highly regarded and have an above-average standard. One day a Father approached us and asked us to train a protégé of his, a 14 or 15 year old “Hugo” in diamond cutting. Hugo had a tough history. He had been sold by his family as bonded labour, i.e. as a child slave, and at some point was ransomed from slavery by the French monastery in Pondicherry. He was allegedly an orphan, at least no relationship to his actual parents could be ascertained any more. The problem of bonded labour, i.e. the sale of children into employment where the child leaves his or her family and is then “owned” by an employer, hardly exists in India today in this sense, or at least not to the extent and as openly as it did in the early 1980s. Child labour was widespread in India at the time and was mainly found in agriculture, the catering industry, but also in some factories. Thus, in the matchstick and fireworks industry, children were better workers than adults. When inserting matches into holes of stencils to apply the phosphorus head to the woods, children with their good eyes and nimble fingers had better production rates than adults.

So we willingly accepted Hugo into the grinding shop, which was still quite small at the time, and were pleased to have a new apprentice who initially seemed very motivated. Very soon, however, it became clear that the young person’s psychological situation made it impossible for him to integrate into a team. At that time, our grinders started work very early and therefore also finished work very early. They got breakfast and lunch from our canteen in the factory. So we had hot milk with biscuits at half past six in the morning and later a normal Indian lunch. However, Hugo’s psychological constellation was so broken that he had screaming fits every time he had breakfast and felt that someone had a tiny bit more milk in the cup. He was also unable to integrate himself in any way into the social structure within the factory in other areas, so that in the end we had to tell Father that we had to break off the training relationship.

The interaction with Hugo and the discussions with the French Jesuit priest led to a good understanding of the situation with bonded labour in India at that time. If one then takes a closer look at the actions of the French monastery and looks behind the initially prominent good will of the fathers, one discovers a frightening mechanism. With the prices in India at that time, lunch in a restaurant cost 2 to 3 rupees. The usual wage of a worker was 800 to 1000 rupees. Selling a child into slavery brought perhaps 5000 rupees. The monastery paid about 20,000 rupees for children they bought back from slavery. Thus, a contractor working with children as bonded labour received about four times what he had paid from the French Fathers. For that he could then buy four new children. In the end, French donations were used to boost human trafficking. Buying slave children free makes super-good fundraising appeals. A lot of donations come into the coffers, and the money has actually been used to buy out children from the bonded labour ratio. But this in no way had the effect of improving the situation in this area. On the contrary, it boosted the trade in people even more! Paying four times the market price for child slaves by Christian organisations does nothing to curb this inhumane industry.

Thankfully, India’s much improved general economic situation and the work of the authorities has largely brought the phenomenon of bonded labour to an end. However, returning to our discussion on social engagement, it must be clearly seen that here the sacrifice of European Christians had exactly the opposite effect than intended.

For all the attempts by Western charities to help in India, there has been very little success. However, one positive example should be mentioned in conclusion. There was then, and still is today, an organisation “Worth Trust”. This organisation, founded by the Swede Dr. Paul Brand, opened its first operational site in South India in 1963. At that time, the organisation started providing education to leprosy-affected disabled people to enable them to earn their own living. Later, the Worth Trust workplaces generally trained all kinds of disabled people. The principle of providing training to disabled people with a lot of technical know-how and excellent precision machines was a stunning success. At the time, the production facilities had installed the high-precision Swiss Schaublin lathes and milling machines on which we had our diamond wheels turned in the “Worth Trust”. The work done there stood out far beyond what was available in India at the time. High-precision “pins” for carburettors of the Indian car industry were manufactured, precision orders for medium-sized companies were carried out and all kinds of parts were produced for which the Indian mechanical industry of the time was overstretched. The workshops had full order books and were not only able to cover their expenses, but were also making a profit. The handicapped mechanics, e.g. young people who only had one arm, were so much in demand in the industry after a 3-year training as precision mechanics that there was only one trainee for every 10 job offers. We also tried to get exits from the Worth Trust, without success. For the disabled, education was often the salvation from a life of poverty and indignity. For the industry, the highly motivated and above-average trained mechanics were a blessing, and the fact that the factories were still making a profit made it possible to set up more and more business premises.

The balance of our discussion on the efficiency, or rather the meaningfulness, of donations for charitable purposes, based on our own experience, does not look so positive. If we add commercial “fundraising”, the picture becomes even more clouded. “Fundraising” means that someone, or an organisation, raises funds for another organisation in a professional manner. Let us assume that there is an organisation XYZ which carries out some eligible activity. Now a fund-raising company approaches this organisation XYZ and offers to buy the right to donate to XYZ by means of special stamps for 100.000,- € from them. For the XYZ organisation, this means additional income of €100,000 plus a higher profile due to the special stamps sold. So the professional fundraising organisation pays €100,000 to XYZ and starts selling special stamps to collect money, supposedly for XYZ’s purposes. The printing of special stamps, the organisation of sales, etc. probably cost the fundraising company another €100,000. So the fundraising company has costs of 200.000,- € . If the business is not a success and only brings in 150,000 €, then the fundraising company has made a loss of 50,000 €. But as a rule, the fundraiser is more likely to collect € 500,000. Thus, he has a profit margin of 60 %, which is not unusual. So far so good, but what does this mean for the donor? The donor who buys a special stamp for 1,- € thinks that this Euro will actually benefit the cause of XYZ. But far from it! Of the €1, only 1/5, i.e. €0.20, arrives at the XYZ organisation at all. And even of these 0.20 euros, only a part will actually end up at the specified purpose. Because the organisation XYZ also has its expenses, its internal administration, etc. If you are very lucky, maybe 10% will reach the actual people in need, and even then it is not certain that the money will really have a long-term positive effect.
We are sceptical about the large-scale “charity industry”, all the charity events, the appeals for donations, etc.. The actual leverage of the money invested is usually so low that this kind of social engagement is out of the question for us, for the Niveau élevé brand.

The Niveau élevé brand is thus more likely not to give donations to charities where the further use of the funds is beyond its direct control and influence. In return, we will promote all the more the projects that are carried out within the framework of our own group of companies. These are mainly three major projects, which are described in the following chapters.
Of course, a certain basic ethical attitude is part of our business philosophy and this attitude should also be expressed in all points of contact with employees, business partners and authorities. It doesn’t make sense to take as much profit as possible with harshness and then distribute it again with leniency. The goals that our brand has set for itself do not lie in the usual scheme of a monetary structure anyway. It is less important for us to have an economic success in order to be able to give the profits to good causes, but we want to do things that follow other guidelines than the usual ones. The three major projects that Niveau élevé supports are the construction of a completely self-sufficient, sustainable energy system for a closed micro-society of about 50,000 inhabitants, the model plant of a seawater desalination plant, which is operated with green energy, completely without chemicals and with as little environmental pollution as possible, and the questioning of our monetary social system with the promotion of alternatives to the current globally practised economic system.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Niveau élevé brand can support these projects, which are described in the following chapters. However, our focus is also on the philosophical background of the brand’s products themselves. Actually, we aim at manifesting a certain attitude, a realisation, a more conscious way of dealing with ourselves and our environment. A commitment to the three major projects named are a valuable part and a necessary consequence of the whole. But the real goal lies just as much in the personal sphere of each individual as in the overarching social projects.