Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CSR in Africa: be part of it!

Today we have another guest post from our long-term friend and collaborator, Laura Spence, who is just back from the African Academy of Management Conference and had some reflections we thought would be good to share.
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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


  1. Great Blog Prof Spence. I shall share this link with AFAM colleagues. It was a pleasure to experience with you AFAM's 2nd Biennial conference. The conversations within and outside of the conference were unbelievable so rich and wished could've record each and every conversation. Totally agree with your beautiful capture of our experience - quite often the tendency of pushing for sameness - after all the claim is universalism rather than particularism. Context plays such an important role but it seems for a longtime, when it came to Africa and much to our realisation trying to go against the grain is futile and must learn from and work with and be part of if we want success from her. Alongside that we might also learn something too. The desert heat and punishing temperatures - no wonder tomorrow is another day, and 'its coming' - it was a lesson in patience indeed.

    Nna le seabe.

    Nceku Q Nyathi

  2. Thanks Nceku, good points. In our PhD training workshop some of the wise students were also able to point out how even the language of 'Western CSR' can be unhelpful. Where 'responsibility' has connotations of atonement and harks back to the apartheid regime in South Africa, for instance, 'Corporate Social Responsibility' is not a great label to attach to social initiatives by business. This is something it is tough to grasp from the kind of frameworks I am familiar with. There is so much that can be linked to the political perspective of CSR but I suspect not (only) in the way that scholars (Andy, Dirk, Jeremy Moon, Guido Palazzo, Andreas Scherer et al) argue of corporations taking up the shortfall of governments. The relationship between the community and the Government is so complex, and businesses not just intermediaries but part of both the government and the community in different sometimes antagonistic, sometimes symbiotic ways. Any PhD students out there looking for a topic - there is some fascinating work to be done in Africa. But as Nceku says, patience will be needed. I suspect the intellectual will be great though. the African Academy of Management will be a great support network. Laura Spence


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