"It would be a sad outcome, in my opinion, if efforts to make businesses operate more responsibly in regions such as Africa were neglected because of the global credit crunch," says Daniel Litvin (pictured), author of Empires of Profit: Commerce, Conquest and Corporate Responsibility. A senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, Litvin is also the founder of Critical Resource, a London-based consultancy specialising in social and environmental issues facing big corporations. Sean Carey interviewed him for New African.
Q: We hear a lot about corporate social responsibility (CSR) nowadays, but what exactly is it?
A: CSR is a voluntary effort by companies to behave well--it is motivated not just by ethics but also by the belief that this will help them make more profits over the long run. The theory is that using CSR initiatives will make companies more popular or at least more trusted in the eyes of stakeholders such as customers, employees and investors.
Q: What are its origins?
A: As a term or phrase, CSR is only a few decades old. But as a concept, it is much older than this. The first large companies of the modern era that invaded different parts of the world - the British South Africa Company, for example - were often brutal and headed by rapacious imperialists who would happily wage war on local people; but sometimes they also made significant efforts to win over the locals, for example by building roads, schools and hospitals.
Of course, thankfully, modern companies no longer use machine guns to get their way. But they do use CSR as a means to keep both local communities and host governments on their side, as well as for less self-interested ethical reasons.
Q: Bring us up to date - which companies operating in Africa are keen on CSR?
A: There is a whole range of different companies involved in CSR initiatives in Africa but it is particularly important in the oil and mining sectors. It is true to say that it is often the long-established companies that have faced the most criticisms over the years (whether these criticisms are fair or not) that now have the most sophisticated CSR policies. So you will find that companies operating in different parts of Africa like Shell and Rio Tinto are very active in terms of CSR. Anglo American, one of the powerhouses of the South African economy, is also committed to various CSR initiatives including in education and healthcare - for example, the treatment of HIV/Aids for employees.
Q: But overall CSR is more the province of larger rather than smaller companies?
A: Yes, CSR is much more associated with large companies like Shell or Anglo American which have a high profile and are very conscious that they need to protect their brands. These companies tend to have relatively well developed procedures in relation to the environment or to human rights, for example.
Q: Have pressure groups been important in changing the behaviour of large multinationals operating in Africa?
A: Yes, the normal pattern is that local opposition to a company comes to the attention of international NGOs - such as Human Rights Watch or Friends of the Earth. A good example of this was when the Nigerian author and broadcaster, Ken Saro-Wiwa, led a campaign in the 1990s against the environmental and social impacts of oil companies, including Shell, in the Niger Delta. His calls for action got the support of dozens of NGOs and the result was a high profile global campaign against Shell.
Further, the execution of Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government in 1995 meant that the company, rightly or wrongly, was seen to be complicit. This episode I think caused soul-searching for many people within Shell - they had assumed they were working for a decent, upright organisation but were now surprised to be accused of being an accessory to Saro-Wiwa's murder. …