Posts Tagged ‘CSR’

Beating up on Evil Inc (CSR reprised)

Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes“Negative vibes man, always with the negative vibes.”

J’s first aid blog forum on CSR is officially closed now, but I felt compelled to post again on this subject. As Sam Gardner put it: “the negativity of the academia and practitioners oozes from my screen.” I think that’s unfortunate.*

The basic complaint, reiterated in many postings, is that corporate donors always want something out of the relationship too, that in the end it’s all just marketing, and that there isn’t an altruistic bone in the corporates’ bodies. Duh! All donors want something out of the relationship. USAid even go so far as to demand marketing plans from NGOs they fund. (Apologies to all regular readers for mentioning this twice inside a week!) Calls to draw the line apply, in my mind, equally to all donors. In my experience, at least the corporates are more honest about the nature of the relationship they want.

Marc Bellemare reduces everything to the bottom line, and it is hard to disagree with his analysis, but I don’t think it tells the whole tale. By analogy we might as well reduce all humans to biochemical gene propagation machines (à la Richard Dawkins) and contend that there is no such thing as true altruism. As with natural selection, one simple mechanism can lead to such incredibly complex and varied outcomes that simply taking the reductionist approach at all times obscures the wood for the trees.

I can also relate to the sense of hypocrisy that development and conservation folk may feel when some corporate spokesman stands up and says “We are donating this … bla, bla … consistent with our values … bla, bla.” Like what “values” exactly? It’s just the bottom line, innit? But I think this makes the opposite error of seeing only the wood and not the trees. For corporations are not monolithic, indivisible organisations solely and remorselessly dedicated to the bottom line. They are made up of people, many of whom are likely to be far from evil. These gene propagation machines feel better about themselves (maybe leading to better gene propagation?) if they think they are contributing to something good and worthwhile. In short CSR is good for HR.

Most (all?) of the bloggers bemoaning the evil corporation and its cynical CSR programmes are from the West, the same West which is responsible for invading other countries, all sorts of unfair trade rules, refusal to acknowledge responsibility for pushing the world to the brink of eco-catastrophe, and other assorted evilness. And yet when said bloggers engage with people from developing countries, I assume they hope that their would be beneficiaries do not react simply as if they represent everything that the West stands for, but kinder, more agreeable individuals. We should offer the same readiness to engage to corporations. Beating up on then as evil personified will get us nowhere.

* The honourable exceptions were Dave Algoso’s excellent, balanced post, whose central point I have merely expanded, and others by Lu and Emily.

CSR and Tropical Conservation

J from the ’Hood has challenged aid bloggers to write something about Corporate and Social Responsibility. This is my contribution focusing on my specific area of expertise.

I’m going to start with a bold assertion unsupported by anything more than my gut feeling. Corporate donors to tropical conservation are mostly big polluters and destroyers of landscapes, i.e. they are consciously attempting to atone for their ‘bad’ acts elsewhere that have harmed the cause of conservation. I think this unpacks in two ways: firstly such companies have a clear motivation in trying to give themselves a better name by supporting conservation projects, and secondly companies who do not suffer from such negative press tend to find other (humanitarian) causes worthier of their support.

Thus CSR in the conservation context is qualitatively different from a lot of other CSR. This leads to charges of greenwashing which pose tricky problems. In my experience each of us tends to draw the line in a slightly and subtly different place. As I discussed in my reaction to the exposé earlier this year of CI’s corporate cosying, I am generally happy to accept the polluter’s shilling on the basis that we, at least, can do some good with it, and that, greedy as we are, there will always be someone willing to take it, so better us than some charlatan. But, I also accept the validity of the more principled position that treats people such as us as Judases.

Wrapped up in all this is one of the big questions of CSR: compensatory philanthropy versus integration into core business practices. I think just about everyone agrees that it is better not to sin in the first place, than to make some later atonement, and thus conservation BINGOs need to be wary of cosying up to big polluting businesses who are fundamentally uninterested in changing their ways. (For more on this again see my previous post on CI’s screw-up. Also see Richard Black’s excellent analysis of the good cop / bad cop division of the conservation NGO sector.) But on the other side of the coin, we must be realistic: the modern world consumes an awful lot of resources (hydrocarbons, minerals, timber, food) whose production or extraction is inevitably messy. So, yes, we should constantly push polluters to improve their acts, but we should accept that some environmental damage is unavoidable, and welcome their attempts to atone for this elsewhere.

Finally, and as I have previously noted: corporate donors tend to be rather more relaxed that institutional and government (or multi-lateral) donors: their grants come with less strings attached. Arguably this is just because the donor is more interested in a little bit of our perceived halo rubbing off on them, but the halo effect will be much more pronounced with an effective project, so it would be naïve to suggest that corporate donors are uninterested in results, and they might counter that their own experience of ‘getting things done’ is that trusting the discretion of a good project manager is much more effective than a raft of restrictive regulations.


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