By Dr Colin Higgins
The International Symposium on Corporate Social Responsibility (IS-CSR) – jointly organised by the Centre for Sustainable and Responsible Organisations (CSaRO) at Deakin University (Australia) and the Amrita School of Business at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University (India) – laid down the gauntlet to business, Government and not-for-profit organisations about what CSR means in modern day India. Two day long event was organized during 12-13 December 2013 at Amrita University Campus, Bangalore, India.
Running through the various presentations, case-studies, and academic papers were two quite different conversations. The first was a sociological conversation about the fundamental role that business can (and should) play in a country, especially a developing country, in the context of sustainable development. At the heart of this conversation wasa question about social change – how does the very institution of business contribute to sustainable development? This involves radically re-thinking the fundamental aspects of a company’s operations. What sorts of products should be produced? How? Who should control companies? How do we lower organisational impacts, but continue to create wealth and meet the needs of citizens in today’s society? The subtext of this conversation is that business is part of the problem of sustainability – and it needs to be part of the sustainable development solution.
The second conversation was much more pragmatic. It was about the new companies’ legislation that requires large Indian companies to spend 2% of their profits on CSR. At the heart of this conversation were questions about projects. How should managers spend this money? What should business do for society? Is there sufficient capacity in organisations to identify and manage appropriate projects? The concerns were around which groups to support? What issues to address? Should impacts and outcomes be measured and monitored – and by whom? The subtext of this conversation was that the fundamental nature of business operations – and indeed the very institutional of business – is basically sound. No major change to the priorities and outcomes of business is necessary. In essence business is an enabler of social progress – rather than a fundamental source of a transition to sustainable development.
These two conversations reflect long-standing debates about CSR in the wider literature, and in other parts of the world. They reminded me of something I once read which posed the question of whether CSR is a verb or a noun. That is, is CSR about being responsible? Or is it a set of things? These perspectives are not mutually exclusive of course – but CSR activities need to be considered in light of a broader discussion (or debate) about the obligations and duties of business. This is a philosophical, ethical discussion.
Any philosophical, ethical discussion about the obligations, duties or responsibilities of business is not easy. There are a whole host of difficult problems in undertaking such an endeavour. One which struck me while I participated in the IS-CSR was one of whose views count? On the one hand, I felt a little bit illegitimate flying in from a rich, developed country and pontificating to those about what CSR is, how it is unfolding in Australia (and elsewhere) and offering a critique of the new companies legislation. Surely, the new legislation should be respected – it has, after all, been enacted by a democratically elected government. It is an approach that makes sense for what are deemed to be the needs and priorities of India today. But yet, I also understand sustainability to be a global, macro level concept – and any discussion of CSR must reflect the global reality of environmental problems, the inter-connected issues of globalisation and poverty, and the business reality that business takes place in a global context. Perhaps we should strive for some kind of global view of CSR?
So, the IS-CSR left much to ponder. The questions raised are not easy ones – and they are even more difficult to address – philosophically, conceptually and practically. Deakin University and Amrita University should be congratulated for throwing down the gauntlet.
Dr Colin Higgins is a Senior Lecturer in the Deakin Graduate School of Business at Deakin University in Australia. He is Deputy Director of Deakin’s Centre for Sustainable and Responsible Organisations and an Associate Editor of ‘Business & Society’. His research explores how social norms and social understandings form and influence business behaviour.