Thursday, July 24, 2008

A view from Africa on corporate citizenship

We are writing this blog entry on the long trip back from a fascinating trip to South Africa. We were there mainly to participate in a big international conference organized by the International Society of Business, Economics and Ethics (ISBEE) – a global network of organizations and scholarly societies dedicated to business ethics. The conference only happens every four years, and brings together people from every continent (it’s not for nothing that it’s called the Olympics of Business Ethics!), and it’s an exciting place to be to talk and learn about what’s happening across the globe.

We were there to launch 2 of our new books, to run some professional development workshops, but most of all, to talk about our work on corporations and citizenship. And the conference, and South Africa in particular, turned out to be a great location to do this. Questions and debates about the social and political roles and responsibilities of corporations are fundamental to countries like South Africa, where it is companies that are charged with the responsibility for implementing black economic empowerment legislation through their human resource programs. Companies are also a key player in the provision of various public goods, such as water, health, and education. For instance, on one of our trips outside Cape Town we passed a special needs skills school sponsored by the local Coca-cola bottler (see photo) that demonstrates just a little of how deeply embedded corporations are in traditionally ‘non-business’ activities.

Such issues also swirled in and out of the several of the keynote speeches at the conference. We heard an executive from the mining company Anglo American discuss at length their responsibility to ‘be a healthcare provider’ and ‘guarantee the human rights’ of South Africans through their impressive HIV/AIDS program. We heard the manager of the charitable foundation of the pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories argue that the legitimacy of their African health initiatives would be threatened by incorporating business goals into their social programmes. And Henk van Luijk, one of the original European pioneers in the business ethics field, and a founder of ISBEE, explicitly identified the political role of the corporation as one of the key challenges facing business ethics and CSR in the future.

So when we came to present on the final morning of the conference, rather than the usual smattering of diehard conference junkies that make it to the last paper sessions of such a long conference, we were greeted with a large, eager crowd that was fully primed for a serious discussion about corporations, politics, and citizenship. Now we’ve been presenting our ideas on all this for a good few years, refining and sharpening as we’ve gone along, but this was definitely one of our favorite, and most productive, conference presentations for a long time.

In what was an unusual occurrence for us, most of the packed room was in agreement that we had to develop better conceptual and practical tools to address the political dimensions of business. In other occasions though, people’s discomfort with the whole idea of business playing a role in politics has meant that they have done their best to shoot the messengers. In one of our recent papers, we discussed this fear in terms of ‘monster theory’ which we had a little fun with.

But this time, corporations and politics were clearly on the agenda amongst our audience. However, not so many of them were convinced that ideas like citizenship, and corporate citizenship specifically, were the best way forward. They could have a point, but at the moment, it is certainly emerging as one important piece of the puzzle. And what we need is more people engaging in the debate about corporations and politics, and eventually devising serious alternatives, rather than just wishing it would all just disappear. In our conference presentation we worked with our audience to think through some potential routes forward for doing this. And in our many conversations both inside and outside the conference itself, we learned a lot about some of the challenges that we face. So whichever way you look at it, spending time in South Africa definitely got us thinking… (oh, and having a little fun too, as you can see in the picture above).

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