The Rhetoric of Corporate Social Responsibility Outweighs the Reality

Has the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) finally come of age?

The concept has been vaguely defined, and still provides a source of confusion both in the corporate world and beyond, but most international corporations, particularly those with footholds in Africa or Asia, have either already implemented CSR strategies or are now drawing them up.

It is welcome progress, but it has been painfully slow and there is still a long way to go.

The majority of African countries have now celebrated 50 years of independence. Before CSR came into being, companies working on the continent felt entitled to behave as they pleased. By the 1980s, firms were promising to provide funding and to empower local communities by building health centres and schools, installing power lines and water supplies, and creating jobs. In reality, though, they were just paying lip service to the idea. Not until the late 1990s did slumbering corporate consciences begin to awaken and realise that it was time to start giving something back.

By then the continent had suffered huge damage, with many countries ravaged by the effects of war, corruption and pollution, situations often exacerbated by the direct interference or connivance of powerful multinationals.

It makes me angry to see what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country which has been in a state of war for decades and where horrific crimes against women are committed, but which also has abundant natural resources. These raw materials include significant deposits of tantalum, a vital component in computers and mobile phones, products from which companies like Nokia, IBM and Siemens have earned billions of dollars.

Change is coming, with new US legislation requiring companies to disclose whether tantalum and other minerals are sourced from the DRC's "conflict mines". But it is a sad indictment of how African development has unfolded that valuable natural materials that should have brought prosperity have instead been exploited by unscrupulous multinationals to feed the appetite of western consumers for cheap electronic goods.

Taking CSR seriously

African companies are still waking up to the potential of CSR as a positive force in the shaping of the continent's economic future. The opportunity is there to give something back to the continent. But CSR initiatives worthy of the name need to be more than just marketing tools to increase the visibility of multinationals' brands in Africa. At the moment, CSR-driven schemes are simply not proportionate to the value these companies extract from Africa and Asia.

As a UK-based Senegalese woman with one foot firmly on my continent, I hope the corporations that have been operating for decades in countries like Guinea, South Africa, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast and DRC will now sit down and take the whole concept of CSR more seriously.

Encouragingly, a few companies are taking more positive steps. Google, for example, runs an active corporate philanthropy programme that has so far poured more than $7m (£4m) into projects targeting poverty, health, energy and the environment. Companies like IBM and PepsiCo are also working with NGOs and foundations to send their executives to mentor business people around the world. Rather than simply giving aid, they appear at last to be engaging at a grassroots level in Africa, working to implement CSR strategies alongside African companies.

Global corporations working in Africa need to be more responsible and show a serious interest in making a difference. They can do this by using CSR to:

• encourage access to education by building classrooms
• invest in people and professional skills
• promote good governance, transparency and leadership
• sponsor or organise ICT, innovation and mobile technology events
• invest in health systems and build health centres
• invest in young entrepreneurs and businesswomen
• employ locals and involve their communities
• promote sustainable, environment-friendly policies
• invest in agricultural educational programs

Africa still faces huge challenges, as demonstrated by the millennium development goals, which increasingly look unattainable. A greater commitment to implementing meaningful CSR programmes by the hundreds of global corporations present on the continent would mark a significant step towards meeting these targets and help put Africa on the road to a prosperous future.

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