The Corporate Responsibility

I came across this blog/forum at Tales from the Hood and thought I’d contribute:

In terms of the for-profit sector – those massive corporate-states we love to demonize – how many are naïve enough to believe that CSR is primarily motivated by a desire to do good, rather than an idea that doing good is useful.  CSR is a tool to build public image, morale and maybe even business itself.  Plenty of blogs and commentary out there testify to the rather cynical regard in which CSR is held. 

That cynicism might be well-earned (and not without its parallels in the government funding to which so many NGOs are addicted).  A corporation with a fiduciary responsibility towards its shareholders to create profit should not lightly engage in activities contrary to the banker’s bottom line.  Of course, CSR can be a way for considerable resources to be placed in the service of humanitarian goals. The world would be a better place if Big Pharma, for instance, would dedicate more resources to developing unprofitable lines of drugs for neglected diseases like kala azar and chagas. 

That said, it would probably be an even better place if Big Pharma wouldn’t spend so much effort in fortifying the protective walls around their products (read: profits) when effective generic drugs could help healthcare providers reach millions more people.  Now that would be an actual exercise in CSR.  In other words, CSR should cease to be a subset of activities/projects within the larger corporate mission, and should become instead a guiding principle of the corporation in the exercise of its mission.   In current practice, then, CSR is a figleaf, providing a get-out-of-unethical-behavior-free card.  What would stop a landmine manufacturer or a torture rendition firm from having CSR?  In short, the SR of CSR should cover the entire C, not just some part of it.

But let’s not stop at the C of CSR.  Why shouldn’t NGOs, especially aid INGOs, be scrutinized with the same level of cynicism?  The big ones are as corporate (though non-profit) as BP.  Well, almost.  Doesn’t our application of CSR to “them” betray an assumption about the motives behind our actions?  That when we do good, it is for the sake of the good itself.  Hence our blindness towards any sense of social responsility as a discrete element of our action, because we equate it with all our activity; we believe the SR ethos permeates the entirety of our organizations.  Of course, within an INGO it’s not the interest in profit driving aid activities, but one cannot deny the extent to which institutional interests drive INGO behavior, in particular the survival of the organization or of the jobs and way of life of its staff.  So what about NGOSR?  To what extent can we think of field activities – the building of a school, distribution of food, vaccination campaign – as SR?  To what extent are those activities a form of SR for the institution of the NGO?  They improve public perception, build morale, and generate the income which pays for offices and salaries and SUVs and an occasional booze up on an exotic beach.

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