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The unprecedented turmoil in the world’s financial markets has resulted in a significant loss of trust in the global financial system. Financial institutions and the market as a whole have been criticised for short-termism, for lacking transparency, and for not being properly accountable to regulators or to wider society. The credit crisis has also raised wider questions about the proper role of investors in society, both in terms of the specific investments that they make and the manner in which they use their influence to ensure that the positive social and environmental impacts of their investment activities are maximised, and the negative impacts minimised. Oxfam sees that the current crisis offers the opportunity to rethink the contribution that investors can make to eradicating global poverty. Oxfam believes that investors have a critical role to play in poverty alleviation, through supporting economic growth, building infrastructure, and helping to create a vibrant, entrepreneurial private sector. Oxfam also believes that investors can play a wider role through encouraging companies to attain higher standards of corporate responsibility performance. However, the influence of investors (or of investment more generally) has not been unambiguously positive. For example, concern has been expressed about the negative consequences for development of volatile capital flows (as seen in the 1997 Asian financial crisis), the negative social and environmental impacts of many large infrastructure projects, the emphasis of investors on short-term profit rather than the creation of long-term successful and sustainable businesses, and the downsides of trade and investment liberalisation. It is in this context that Oxfam has launched a new project, ‘Better Returns in a Better World’. The project’s objectives are: to analyse the role that institutional investors can play in poverty alleviation; to encourage investors to take account of poverty issues in their investment decisions; and to identify the key barriers to long-term investment in developing countries. This discussion paper is the first part of the project. It has three objectives. The first is to make a case for why investors are of critical importance to the development agenda. The second is to provide an analytical framework for the project. The third is to identify some of the core questions that the project will seek to explore.

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