I always thought that the term “corporate social responsibility” was a least-adhered-to topic in Bangladesh.
However, it feels quite nice when I see the term and the related activities along with it are being discussed in a public forum.
In a recent workshop organised by the Centre on Budget and Policy of Dhaka University and the Asia Foundation, CSR experts sat together and opined that the government, the private sector, and charitable organisations should think of working together to ensure that CSR funds are spent efficiently so as to support communities as well as the economy.
They emphasised on the “value for money” while spending for any CSR activity. They are so right when they say this. These days, while thinking of any CSR activity, the importance of charity and philanthropy has reduced among the practitioners.
Companies around the world, in the last decade, have been considering a business link while spending for CSR. For example, a bottled water company would think of choosing a CSR activity in the water sector. It wouldn’t choose something that doesn’t connect with its core business.
The benefits of spending
However, spending for CSR in Bangladesh couldn’t yet come out of the concept of charity and philanthropy. If we look at the how the banks in Bangladesh have been spending their money which has doubled in the last decade, we’d see most of them aren’t spending those funds which are not related to their core business. The benefits of spending the money aren’t returning to the banking sector.
On the other hand, the telecom sector in the country has turned around when they think of their CSR strategy. They say that they are digital companies and they would think of doing something that would improve and benefit the digital environment of Bangladesh.
This is indeed a welcome phenomenon that they aren’t spending their money for football tournament or organising get-togethers of alumni associations. Rather, they are seen to focus on technology and education.
What would a cement company or a tobacco company do? They may certainly think of the environment and the people’s health. They wouldn’t do anything for the sake of doing. What would a beverage company do? It would mostly likely do something that raises its customers’ health consciousness.
Many may term CSR activities as voluntary work. Yes, it may be voluntary, but the necessity of running this voluntary work should come from within the companies, from their sense of responsibility that directly or indirectly connects the customers as well as the society as a whole with their core business.
As a nation, we’re still far from defining and understanding the nuances of CSR. I don’t think one consultation meeting can complete the task
And yes, the work has to be sustainable; they mustn’t do anything that they cannot do every year. If they cannot continue the activity or cannot increase the intensity of the activity, the work wouldn’t, then, be sustainable.
Remember when the rich people were spending money on charity and building schools and hospitals? They were actually spending those funds for their own children and families. If there’s no school in a village or a hospital in a town, where would their children study? Where would their family members go for treatment? They would have to travel to faraway lands for these purposes.
Corporate human responsibility
The term CSR these days has shed the word “social” and in many countries has become only “corporate responsibility.” And in a few countries, they aren’t even talking about corporate responsibility; they’re discussing “corporate human responsibility.”
The concepts aren’t being confined to the companies anymore -- they have crossed the boundary of companies, they have gone to the level of individual citizens. We, in Bangladesh, are also subconsciously thinking in the same fashion.
Look at what the citizens are doing for the flood-affected people right now. They have gone all-out in helping the victims so that they survive the calamity. This response has come from the citizens’ sense of responsibility. They understand that the government, as the biggest corporation of the country, would not be able to shoulder the responsibility alone.
Therefore, the government itself needs to realise that it alone cannot do everything for the people in need. It should develop a mechanism or a framework that could create the opportunity for the citizens to participate.
To my mind, similarly, the government should also create an opportunity for the companies to participate in social activities or human activities. However, this hasn’t been the case in our country. This realisation has led to the idea of developing a national guideline.
Now, what should the CSR guideline contain? I believe as a nation, we’re still far from defining and understanding the nuances of CSR. I don’t think one consultation meeting can complete the task of understanding CSR. I have been for a national CSR guideline for the last 20 years, yet we couldn’t develop it.
Why? Because we haven’t been talking about it, we haven’t putting proper emphasis on what CSR can achieve. The companies were seen to have a CSR department on the sidelines of their operations just because the government had asked them to do so. This practice has borne very little result in the society.
Therefore, I believe that the guideline shouldn’t be developed in haste. The planning ministry, the think-tanks, or the academics alone shouldn’t try to develop the guideline. Rather, they must include those, the companies to be specific, who are already practising CSR. We should gather all the experience, and then examine them with an open mind, and then go for a guideline.
The guideline should be able to inspire the companies to be more responsive to their responsibilities towards human beings -- their customers.
Ekram Kabir is a fiction writer.