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January 29, 2004

Beyond CSR 

I find image-making with Corporate Social Responsibility sufficiently disreputable to have guest edited a special issue of Journal of Brand maangement last year asking when will brand and real CSR repair ech other's broken trust.

Seems that a deep hitting report following this up has just been issued by Christian Aid
Executive summary (extract)

'We have lived so long at the mercy of uncontrolled economic forces, that we have become sceptical about any plan for human emancipation. Such a rational and deliberate reorganisation of our economic life would enable us, out of the increased wealth production, to establish an irreducible minimum standard which might progressively be raised to one of comfort and security.'
Lord Harold Macmillan, UK Prime Minister 1957-63

All day a steady file of people make their way up and down the potholed main road running through Umuechem, going to and from a polluted stream that is now their only source of water. Large trucks thunder by at regular intervals, on their way to and from the oil pumping station on the outskirts of town. For, despite the lack of basic amenities, this is the oil-rich Niger Delta of southern Nigeria.

As well as taps that are dry, this town of 10,000 people also has a hospital that has never treated a patient, a secondary school where no lessons have ever been taught, a post office that has never handled a letter and a women's centre that has never held a meeting. All were supposed to have been supplied under 'community development' schemes, funded from oil money - local wells produce 15,000 barrels a day. But all have failed or remain unfinished.

Four of these projects were 'generous' gifts from the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria - the oil giant's subsidiary that runs the flow station near Umuechem and is the country's dominant oil company. The others, including the water system, came from the state-financed Nigeria Delta Development Corporation, which works alongside Shell - to similar effect.

Sadly, this story of failure is not new. In 1990, when the country was under military rule, local young people mounted a protest about the lack of such facilities. Shell called in the police, most of the town was burned to the ground and 80 people were killed. To this day, no one has received a penny in compensation and the basic amenities are still missing.

This is the story of corporate social responsibility - or CSR - writ large.

Certainly, it is a story that stands in stark contrast to Shell's professed commitment to 'core values of honesty, integrity and respect for people'.

Outside certain areas of business and investment and supporters in the public sector, few people will know much about what CSR is, where it comes from and how it works. If they have ever heard of it, they will probably just think that it sounds like a good thing (which it does, that is part of the point). But this is now a big, and growing, industry, seen as a vital tool in promoting and improving the public image of some of the world's largest corporations.

In simple terms, companies make loud, public commitments to principles of ethical behaviour and undertake 'good works' in the communities in which they operate. It sounds and looks like a modern version of selfless philanthropy and no doubt in many individual cases is motivated by a genuine wish to help and has led to some benefits. What's different is that companies frequently use such initiatives to defend operations or ways of working which come in for public criticism.

'We can't be so bad,' would go a company's clich├ęd CSR-backed response. 'Look at all the nice things we do.'

CSR, in other words, can merely become a branch of PR. Sometimes this looks like the only reason for spurts of development activity by large companies. Shell, for instance, was at the forefront of CSR in Britain, following the joint public relations disasters of the Nigerian government's execution of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and the row over Shell's plan to dump the Brent Spar North Sea oil platform - both in 1995. Certainly for some, such as those living in Umuechem, Shell's CSR programme has brought no tangible benefits.

Christian Aid, of course, supports responsible and ethical action by business. The problem with CSR, we say, is that it is unable to deliver on its grand promises.
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