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.