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.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for summarizing & sharing, though I will comment that I didn’t expect my post to come across as negative about CSR policies; on the contrary, I think it’s great to think about the ways you can help your employees feel like they’re working in some ways for a cause rather than a corporation through targeted, well-thought-out projects and investments. CSR is good for HR, but it’s also good for other reasons as well.

    Reply

  2. […] all there were twenty-six posts – twenty-five to begin with, and then a late addition by MJ over at Bottom Up Thinking that I took the liberty of adding manually even though The Forum […]

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  3. Hey MJ,

    I liked this post and honestly had hoped for a bit more along this line in The Forum. Also, and in my own self-defense, I thought that my own contribution, while obviously still somewhat cynical (cynicism = part of my shtick) put the onus of action in resolving the Corporate/CSR and Traditional Aid Actor divide squarely on the Traditional Aid Actors.

    I take your point about how 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.” It’s a fair point, and you made it well. And while it resonates and I completely agree and, further, wholeheartedly acknowledge that there are many “good”, ethical, moral, etc., etc., etc., people (as if you or I could ever judge, but nevertheless) in the corporate sector, I am going to push back just a tiny bit:

    This begins to sound an awful lot like the “but he/she really meant well…” argument that we encounter all the time in the aid world. Moreover you and I both know that it’s totally en vogue right now for mass media to portray humanitarian organizations as self-absorbed, incompetent blimps concerned only with their own self-preservation to the detriment survivors of disaster, conflict and poverty. And in this context, the counter-argument that there are good, committed, competent, self-sacrificing aid workers simply falls flat.

    There comes a point at which the relationship between the part and the whole it is but a small piece of is no longer particularly relevant, and at which the real issue is about what the whole actually does.

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    • Hi J. I see where you are coming from, but I would argue that CSR is an important route into engagement with big corporations. In contrast to traditional donors, who have a rather take it or leave it attitude, corporations want to donate to the cause they’ve selected and want the publicity. In conservation, at least, I often sense there is an opportunity for a certain amount of push back along the lines of “Ok we can take your money but you need to improve practice X, and we can help you do that.” Thus CSR is a conversation we should welcome. Of course, BINGOS who accept crappy swedow donations under CSR arrangements deserve all the blame they get along with the donor.

      Traditional donors, however, and I include grant-giving trusts in this, seem to me to be far less responsive. Everybody knows its their function to give away money, and they’ll just find someone else if you get awkward. I actually think they can be harder to change than the corporations, and boy do we need them to change!

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  4. Looking at my own contribution, indeed I was more negative than I could be. Only the parts that are critical of CSR werde developed, while the positive sounds are just abandoned after a short mention.
    Obviously, CSR, done by a responsible corporation, is to be welcomed very much. Obviously, every corporation is a society with its different constituents and interests. You should never think about them as if they are monolithic. Even bad policies can be turned into good programmes by responsible employees.

    However, like bad NGOs, bad governments, bad donors, and bad people, bad corporations are not good. We deal badly with them because they pay the piper. We remember, like everybody, the harm done more than the good.

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    • Hi Sam, I empathise with both you and J. There are certainly both good and bad points to CSR. And I know full well the unstoppable momentum of writing a good rant. Too many times have I published a blog post only to repent somewhat the next day that I might have gone a little bit over-board and/or just neglected to give it a bit more balance. I should also thank you guys for giving me the opportunity and inspiration to write the response! So, yes I do most certainly agree, that there are some big bad corporations out there whose attempts at a bit of CSR PR are almost disgusting when placed besides their regular behaviour. And if we recognise that these are not monolithic entities then we can also recognise that those employees who do not care for their employer’s ‘evilness’ probably need some outside help in condemning their companies failings.

      Reply

  5. […] the world to the brink of eco-catastrophe, and other assorted evilness….” — Beating up on Evil Inc — Bottom Up […]

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  6. […] the world to the brink of eco-catastrophe, and other assorted evilness….” — Beating up on Evil Inc — Bottom Up […]

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