Monday, August 31, 2009

CSR in the developing world - alleviating poverty

If you are a company doing business in the developing world, chances are that you are not far away from poverty in a very basic form. You cannot, and should not, be an island behind electrified fences. And at the same time, its not your job to solve global hunger. What can you do ? What should you do ?

You are doing something, by the very fact of your existence. You provide jobs to people. There is no better way of fighting poverty than that. This is the greatest good that companies can do. Locational choices on where to operate are dictated by a whole host of considerations – nearness to market, availability of inputs, government incentives, cost structures, etc etc. I suggest that one more criteria be added – poverty around the location. Other things being equal, go to a place with higher poverty. Perhaps go to places where others haven’t been. Go outside of the big cities. This isn’t an ideological rant. In my business life, I’ve been part of many many locational choices. Our best decisions have been when we have gone to unlikely places. My greatest emotional satisfaction from many a job has been the job opportunities we have given to people who otherwise might have had none.

Having gone there, a company would do well to get involved in the local community. Not give money – in my experience nothing destroys a community more than sudden wealth. But link up in ways that are natural to your business. Encourage your employees to volunteer in building skills in the community. If you run a factory and have a captive power plant, sell electricity at cost to the neighbourhood (all too often they have none). Give water from your borewell. Source inputs, if you can, locally. Train them to get you those inputs. Fund local entrepreneurs as a venture capitalist to set up ancillary industries to supply you inputs. Extend the health education you give your employees, to the local community. And so on. Above all, don’t build electrified fences !

The greatest good that a company can do to the community is to further economic activity. For there is no way out of poverty than to create economic opportunities. Help local government create the right climate for attracting more industries. Be a vigorous spokesman for your community in attracting others to come. Run the business on highly ethical lines – it rubs off on everybody around. For decades, Tatanagar in India, was an oasis of calm right in the heart of a violent region, largely because of the values Tatas brought to that place.

And one of the best acts you could do is to encourage volunteerism by your employees. That’s a theme I’ll pick up tomorrow.

But please, oh please, do not become an island of wealth, bounded by a 15ft high wall, in the midst of abject poverty. Quite apart from it being morally difficult to stomach, it is also not sustainable. One day for sure, somebody will torch your fence.