Can development and CSR really meet or are they at odds no matter what you do? I have met many people from the development world who are really aggressive towards CSR and just about everything it stands for. And while I will be the first to admit that CSR is far from a perfect approach for business towards its social responsibilities it is just about the best guess out there on how its done.
So why all this hostility and aggressiveness towards business having a social responsibility, is it not what we all want that business take on more of the social burden that governments cant handle by their own?
Here are some common denominators on what people in development think is wrong with CSR.
- It is a branding and communication exercise that has nothing to do with social responsibility.
Well it is true that a lot of companies are actively communicating their CSR activities and that for some of the major companies CSR has become part of the image that we have of the company. For one I think the Abraham Lincoln (attributed) quote “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time” rings true. All communication people know that you can’t lie forever and the same goes for corporate communication. If there were no hint of truth to in the brand it would at some point be exposed as a fake.
- It is only exercised to reduce the risk of bad PR.
There is a strong risk element in CSR because it is the only business approach that has some success in confronting social risk. Actually risk management have been one of the primary “business cases” for CSR. But risk is not limited to PR alone it can be many different things that has nothing to do with creating a good or bad image of the organisation. Proper risk management take a holistic approach to the organisation and so does CSR. With this approach on gets an insight into operations of the state, which under normal circumstances would be left out or marginalised.
- It is seen as a neoliberal project that is out to exploit the developing world
There seem to be the perception that business somehow has feelings that guide them to do evil. But as far as I know there is no evidence that companies in themselves are either good or evil, they are as far as I know just companies working in a market. But with the market there are structures and mechanisms that can be harmful. The companies might or might not be aware that their actions have a counterproductive result or even harm people who are in contact with its operations. CSR is an effort to confront some of theses impacts in a constructive and systematic way rather than tackling them one by one as they arise.
- It will be gone in three years.
The same thing was said three years ago and CSR is still around. In the years I have been involved in CSR there have been shifts in focus from reporting, to communication to governance. At some point either one have been the prevailing issues that have been talked about. I’m convinced that CSR will be around for many years to come because it works from the basic principle that organisations have a responsibility towards its stakeholders. This basic premise have been true always and that we call it CSR is more a construction of the time we live in rather than a shift in basic assumptions about business and society.
I hope and think that CSR professionals and development people can meet on common ground and that the two have something to learn from each other. But there is a strong need to confront some of the stereotypical assumptions about how business operates and how development people think.