A world of difference

General counsel for Sheraton Hotels in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Robert Scott, has achieved what many of us only dream of – pursuing, on the one hand, his ambition to get a top job in the profession and on the other, his desire to improve the world.

The Brussels-based lawyer came up with a scheme that has raised over $3m to immunise hundreds of thousands of African babies. And it started with an idea Scott says was “so simple it almost scared me”.

Scott first visited Africa when putting the finishing touches to the contract for a new 300-bedroom luxury hotel in Addis Ababa – built by a Saudi Sheikh as a tribute to his Ethiopian mother. He was profoundly affected by the visit. “Africa was different from anywhere I'd ever been,” he says. “It's a bit like falling in love. You come back and you're not the same person. It really changes your perspective.”

Africa may have worked its magic on Scott, but he says he didn't allow it to turn his head. It was during the official opening of what was to be Africa's number one hotel that he became aware of the huge gulf between the rich and poor in the country.

The opening was “like the Academy Awards, with ambassadors arriving in chauffeur-driven limos”. As the dignitaries partied, Scott gazed at the spectacle. What did the Ethiopians make of it? What did Sheraton's guests make of the Ethiopians?

According to Scott, the car ride to the airport was all that many guests saw of the country. They would see women with babies strapped to their backs, carrying water or firewood on their heads; men crammed into old trucks hurtling along the road; girls selling fruit at makeshift stalls.

“Poverty in Africa is so extreme and so different from poverty in the West,” says Scott, “and Ethiopia isn't the poorest African country. I wasn't a socialist in that I felt the world's wealth should be redistributed but I'm very aware of my privilege, and the hotel world is very privileged.”

It was then that Scott came up with the idea. “If Sheraton's guests could give just one dollar when they checked out of their rooms, it could make such a difference. I knew our guests could easily afford a dollar. I became obsessed with the idea.”

Scott's boss shared his enthusiasm. “I think because I'm a lawyer, people were more inclined to listen to me. Lawyers aren't supposed to do this sort of thing,” he says.

Surveying the reports of the big relief agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children and UNICEF, Scott opted for UNICEF, largely because of its international reputation and presence in over 160 countries. Together they worked out a strategy to ensure that Sheraton's dollars could be specifically targeted.

“I wanted something we could measure rather than a general fund,” says Scott. “Immunisation – one of UNICEF's most successful international programmes – seemed the best visual symbol for the initiative. It's so tangible and, if you don't immunise the children, they have no chance of survival.”

In 1996, Scott announced the plan to a Salzburg conference of Sheraton general managers. “Each manager runs their hotel in the way they choose,” he says, “and here was this lawyer telling them to embark on a programme that adds a dollar to people's bills! I stood up thinking: 'Oh my God!' and I made a rather emotional speech. I said: 'As responsible members of society we need to find every opportunity to help those less fortunate. We are in the unique position of playing host to tens of thousands of people all over the world…'”

The managers backed Scott and a year later the scheme, “Check Out for Children”, was up and running. In 1997, due to report to his Sheraton bosses on UNICEF's progress, Scott spent five days with the charity in Zambia – one of Africa's poorest countries and one that has been hardest hit by AIDS.

When Scott spoke to the managers, the experience came flooding back to him. “I said to them: 'I want to thank you on behalf of the street children who I saw rummaging for dropped beans in the market so they could get something to eat; on behalf of the villagers who, for the first time, have safe water where before they had to walk two miles to a dusty well full of parasites; on behalf of all the mothers whose children were immunised and on behalf of those people who don't have a voice, because you are their voice. You and your guests should be proud of what you are doing.'

“Then I showed them the film of UNICEF's work, which was very powerful. I knew we had a deal. Now we are sort of married to UNICEF.”

Scott says his career path was inspired more by To Kill A Mocking Bird than the prospect of making money. But he insists his inspiration for “Check Out for Children” was his first visit to Africa. “In the West we're so obsessed with money and status, which can numb you to what's really important. I am as ambitious as the next person but this experience has calmed me down a lot. A lot of my peers wouldn't be interested in going to Africa but to me it's a gift. Now when I go to Africa, I tell people I'm going to the real world. Africa has made me realise my universe is not as small as I thought it was. I'm not just a white man living in Europe.”