* * * * * *
Given the laudable aims of corporate social responsibility protagonists - I guess, roughly speaking, to make the world a better place - you have to wonder why so much time and effort is put into understanding social responsibility in places where really, let’s face it, the social problems are not really that big.
Should we be stressing about which company sponsors school sports equipment, or would we be better occupied to worry about schools which have no books? Is corporate lobbying one of life’s big issues or could it rather be the conflation of corporations and governments, systemic bribery, corruption and nepotism? Should we be fretting about diversity training in head offices or focusing on situations where gender, race, class, caste, religious and tribal differences mean staggering inequalities in opportunities are ingrained? It paints a pretty miserable picture when you think about it.
For all this, understanding developing and emerging countries need not be a miserable enterprise. I have just come back from the fabulous African Academy of Management (AFAM) Conference in Botswana, with renewed understanding of social responsibility – or at least a whole new set of questions to ask.
Discussion around the conference was not so very different in many respects to other Academy events, but one thing kept surfacing – we might list the relative importance of issues in developing country contexts, but is there a different philosophical starting point? Are the frameworks based on Western capitalist systems of any real help outside of the ‘West’?
As is the way of things sometimes, a glimmer of an answer came for me in one of the few moments we had to get outside of the conference. We visited, by chance, a small exhibition of local artists’ work relating to the fight against HIV/AIDs. It was produced under a cross-sector partnership between government and a local NGO with the Tswana strap line ’Nna le sea be’. This roughly translates as ‘Be part of it’.
It is just a tourist-eye view of mine of course, but this felt different to me, not an approach I would expect to see elsewhere. There is something special about the local push for the acceptance of problems and drive to pull people together to join in and be a part of the solution, reflected through a local saying used in equal measure to help someone pick up something they have dropped, or work together to reduce the tragedy of HIV/AIDS. Surely this has implications for CSR in Africa.
Alongside this, another important realisation was the different pace in Botswana. Time and again when waiting for some service or other to be provided, one is met with ‘It’s coming’ or better still ‘Tomorrow’. It is a reminder how hung up some cultures are with everything being just so, preferably yesterday. When the pace of life slows, this does seem pretty absurd, but it also acts as a reminder that transferring expectations from one part of the world is a misguided approach to just about anything, not least CSR. It is likely to be far more helpful to learn from local perspectives, achievements and solutions. But patience might be needed.
My reason for being in Botswana was as part of the team offering a PhD training workshop and a stream on small and medium sized enterprises and social responsibility in developing countries funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. We have six seminars planned for 2014 and 2015, a book and as a result of the fascinating time had at AFAM 2014, we will be wrapping up our project at AFAM2016 in Ethiopia.
Nna le seabe.
Laura J. Spence