Rethinking Development and CSR

When I was a kid starting to learn how to bike, I got into a fight with my cousin over the use of bicycle. Our grandfather saw the incident and separated us. Then he promised me a bicycle in the years to come. Hence, it was enough for me to treat my cousin fairly and nicely.

Now I have outgrown biking and my grandfather has passed away, but I have yet to ride on that promised bike. I think I have to buy one to fulfill someone’s promise.

There seems to be a growing consensus on the global and local problems (poverty, environmental degradation, conflicts, etc.) and their solutions (development driven by governments, NGOs, churches, corporations, etc.) by the international community. This consensus is manifest in the number of summits and conferences held in the past decades tackling global problems and recommending development approaches.

Coming from a “developing” country, I have witnessed and known the proliferation of programs and projects with the aim of “developing” our country since the 1960s. Most of these endeavors are internationally-funded and initiated. Up to now, we remain in the category of “developing,” while those donors and bureaucrats who conceptualized and introduced these programs and projects are ironically from “developed” countries. I think they are working in the tendency and objective that the rest of the world must be like theirs – “developed.” They see the needs of the “developing” countries and believe that they are doing service and something to the problems of the world.

In the 1987 Our Common Future report by the Brundtland Commission, the concept of “needs” is elaborated with emphasis on the “essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given.” Although I see the real needs of the people, I still can not see the commonality of our future if today we live in diverse “presents.” If we are able to situate ourselves in a common present, then the possibility of talking about a common future sounds charming to those who are able to live decent and longer lives. But for the poorest people, everyday is a survival, and the future is short-sighted. They may even argue, why talk about the future when what I think about the whole time is this moment I can’t live without.

Lately, governments and NGOs cannot claim monopoly of development efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor. Corporations are having a fair share of development efforts. These efforts driven by corporations are often coined as corporate social responsibility (CSR). Corporations have finally seen the light that they too have a role and power to contribute to development in their chosen communities and field. Unlike governments, corporations are doing CSR on voluntary basis and goodwill. There is no binding obligation for these corporations to continually work on certain projects in communities.

On their 1996 book, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, Wackernagel and Rees point out that “the assumption and the facts upon which each is based must be subject to logical scrutiny and repeated ‘reality checks’.” I think this is applicable in the prevailing and hegemonic narrative of development driven by corporations. To be effective, any assumptions, interpretations and facts on development, to my mind, must be “subject to logical scrutiny and repeated ‘reality checks’.” What usually happens is that major decisions are done outside of the concerned community by implementers and experts of development. This creates tensions and confusions on the communities concerned which at times feel powerless and yielding to these decisions by their corporate benefactors.

Consultations and participatory mechanisms are conducted in communities, but they appear to be token ones. Communities must be thankful enough to recognize the efforts of corporations on their communities. They may wonder, at what expense? For the sake of what? What development framework CSR is adopting? Obviously, CSR cannot claim that its framework is people-centered development. Rightly perhaps, business-centered development with people and environment at the margins.

Wackernagel and Rees differentiate development which means “getting better” from the most-oft misconceived equivalent – growth which means “getting bigger.” This is a useful distinction and shift. However, growth remains the dominant discourse in development. Even the Brundtland report still highlights economic growth; it states, “And we believe such growth to be absolutely essential to relieve the great poverty that is deepening in much of the developing world.”

For me, it sounds hypocritical to talk about the needs of the world’s poor, and yet pursuing the masked thinking of the same thing (growth) that essentially degrades the environment and widens the gap between the rich and poor people and countries. Driven by its expansionist model, corporations see economic growth as the main force towards their goals while accommodating the concerns on the environment and of the communities. They project themselves as pro-sustainable development which is charming and promising to the impoverished and needy.

Governments, NGOs, churches and corporations have been preaching development of a future that is better than what we are and have. The poor may have to wait for these to happen. Or act on their own future with or without the promises of development made by the governments, NGOs, churches and corporations.

I have waited long enough to ride a bike of my own. I need to act if I really desire a bike. But, is it what I need?

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