Is Corporate Social Responsibility Filling In Where Govt. Fails In Africa?

Is Corporate Social Responsibility Filling In Where Govt. Fails In Africa?

Corporate social responsibility is tough in Africa.

Buildings meant for the betterment of society can become targets in places like Nigeria, while mining corporations that contribute to building a country’s infrastructure may become the toast of the continent.

Multinational corporations that aim for corporate social responsibility when doing business in Africa must respond to pressure from multiple and often competing worlds.

On one hand, they may be responsible to owners, officers and shareholders who tend to prefer profits over warming stories of  “…communication and mutual respect…” gained by extensive mining company efforts in West Africa.

On the other hand, they are tasked with respecting and furthering causes of human rights, environmentalism, democratization and development, causes that can often seem abstract or even impossible on the African continent.

While the bottom line is an extremely effective way to judge the efficacy of most business efforts, the successes of corporate social responsibility efforts can be more difficult to evaluate, often with constantly moving goalposts from both business and civil society.

One of the most prominent ways for companies to “give back” is the creation of tangible gifts that can be pointed to, most often in the form of shiny new buildings with big signs that read, “brought to you by XYZ Corporation.”

Research has shown this type of corporate social responsibility tends to not be good for either the company or the country anyway. The main reasons are because such buildings tend to neglect input or efforts of local actors; they tend to be viewed as gifts rather than efforts for improvement and local ownership. This sometimes results in the continued need for outside funding for their upkeep and operation, which does not help in development and is a continual cost and headache for the businesses that provided them.

This represents a problematic dichotomy where the creation of tangible “gifts” that can be pointed to by local residents creates dependency on the foreign company and thus they demand less from their already unresponsive government and more from the multinational corporation.

In one study sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, a delegation visited a village in the Niger Delta and when they found a non-functioning drainage system they were told by villagers that the town was “…appealing to Shell to come do it…” rather than asking for anything from the government. This is truly a problem, both for the people of the Delta and for Royal Dutch Shell.

The lesson is not to give up on corporate social responsibility.

It should, instead, be to refocus efforts to areas that will improve states as a whole through macro-level solutions to broad governance issues that will ultimately result in a citizenry that is more demanding of its government and a government that is more able to respond to its citizenry.

Macro-level democratization and training programs can ultimately help human rights and environmental protections at a local, state or national governmental level. There are many such programs that have been championed by various international civil society organizations but have been largely ignored by multinational corporations’ corporate social responsibility efforts.

The answer, perhaps, lies in the difference in thinking between the West and Africa on issues of corporate social responsibility. While in the West we have a tendency to view such efforts as philanthropy, leading to gifts, there is an African expectation of more overarching development assistance from local firms.

When asked by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development how corporate social responsibility should be defined, Ghanaians stressed local community issues such as “building local capacity” and “filling in when government falls short,” according to Prof. Jedrez George Frynas of Middlesex University.

That may explain why buildings meant for the betterment of society can become targets in Nigeria, while mining corporations that contribute to building a country’s infrastructure sometimes become the toast of the continent.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.