CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility, or Corporate Self Righteousness?
The thrust of this piece is to communicate the growing need to radically reform the hegemonic structure of development in third world countries that has been traditionally, nay — forcefully prescribed by the first world since colonialism and “The White Man’s Burden.”
Through an analysis of cultural and economic instantiations of this structure on Chad’s oil pipeline project of the early 21st century, we can begin to identify and analyze the pressing defects of economic neoliberalism and a rising focus on “corporate social responsibility” and the role it has played in foreign development.
This brief article can be used as a springboard for awareness and hopeful change: countries of advantage are exploiting the third world under the guise of aid and development, but political corruption from both sides is so deeply entrenched in this system that it is increasingly difficult for those of us outside of these positions of power to puncture it.
Using Lori Leonard’s Life in the Time of Oil, we can begin to conceptually clarify the pervasive, and binary cultural consequences that this development project had on the entire country of Chad, from its top autocrat to its poorest villager.
To supplement this case study, we can bring in a diverse pool of sources, such as Ha Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, documentaries like The Corporation, and articles such as Robert Foster’s “Corporations as Partners,” published by PoLAR and The Guardian’s Jason Hickel, who published “Aid in Reverse.”
These sources can elucidate the adverse economic effects that this alleged development generated on the third world, despite explicit assertions of the opposite. As knowledge of this system emerges, so too does our power to fix it, but to eerily echo Hickel’s parting words to his readers, “do we have the courage?”
Through careful reflection on her fieldwork in Africa, Leonard shows us how even the meaning ascribed to the pipeline differed so distinctly between the people of Chad and this consortium of its corporate partners. The discrepancy in understanding between these two parties, who were so dependently interwoven, led to the effort’s inevitable failure and it seems as though the neoliberal sentiment of privatization is the partial factor at most to blame here.
Certainly Leonard expounds upon the physical entanglement of the project, marked by seizing land and displacing and relocating families with oil pumps, but I argue that the project transformed the “psychic” landscape of Chad in a less discernable, but more detrimental manner, indoctrinating Chadians to improperly absorb Western values of “motivation, drive and commitment” through this “devolving corporate social responsibility” established by the consortium in order “to attribute programmatic failures to individual flaws.”
This all connected back to neoliberalism in the sense that the corporate concern was to work “feverishly to leave no footprint behind” in Chad, while trying to operate under the façade of a “poverty-reducing formula,” which — despite its heavy emphasis — only five percent of all revenues were actually earmarked for. This dissonance, however, proved too wide and insurmountable, spiraling the project into failure and withdrawal just eight years after the first well was installed.
This was because I believe the project was run under the polar opposite pretense: Chadians — through a subservient, yet forced, facilitation in the project’s operation — helped Exxon, the World Bank, and their nation’s political leaders accrue revenue while receiving little assistance and limited dependency from those in charge. These social effects distanced the powerful from the weak and perpetuated a doomed model of development that only worked to pay off short-term investment for the minority, not long-term expansion and growth for the majority.
Ha Joon Chang subverts the traditional American assumptions about capitalism and the corporate sector, ultimately claiming that the maximum degrees of freedom we allow under our popular neoliberal model is certainly not good for the public, but may not even be beneficial for the firms themselves.
Chang asserts that certain regulation can indeed raise collective productivity in the long-run, even at high initial costs. Of course, we observed the consortium’s partial failure to realize this in Chad. Perhaps more of the issue, however, was the consortium’s outright failure to recognize certain important communist critiques of capitalism. Namely, being that profit-seeking must be restrained for the flourishing of “justice, social harmony, protection of the weak and national glory.”
It kind of seems like these were the very ideals missing in Chad, an environment that was certainly perpetuated by the profit-seeking, and thereby liability-limiting, attitudes adopted by the consortium.
Using a case-study of the South Korean regulatory environment, Chang says that the heavy emphasis on permit acquisition for new businesses was not enough to deter business people as they truly believed there was enough money to be made at the end of the process. This can help illustrate how the environment in Chad, with its unregulated neoliberal model, perhaps wasn’t seen as this same kind of extensive money-making opportunity by the consortium at all, indicating that their true motivations seemed to be extractive or exploitative, not adjusted or equitable.
He addresses Africa explicitly though, debunking the underdevelopment myth, claiming that the first-world’s free-trade neoliberal policies of are the primary factors in the condemnation of these countries to a fixed future of poverty.
Moreover, he points to the inaccuracy behind citing Africa’s culture as a reason for its underdevelopment — something the consortium seems to have precisely done through their efforts to inculcate the Chadians with Western ideals of individualism, despite their contradicting views (Leonard tells us that many of them saw money as “diabolical”).
This illustrates the Western failure to realize the doctrine of relativism, and only reflects upon a larger corporate self-centeredness that was incompatible in this vastly divergent landscape.
Having said that, corporations seize and retain an overwhelming amount of power over the third world. How can we reconcile this? If we look towards the Canadian documentary, The Corporation, we can observe the ways in which the corporation — which, under the 14th Amendment, has been granted the inalienable rights and freedoms of an individual — behaves like a psychopath, according to the official manual of mental disorders in the DSM. This tactic pays off, as we can observe this sort of disorderly behavior (their “callous unconcern for the feelings of others”, their “incapacity to maintain enduring relationships,” their “reckless disregard for the safety of others,” their “repeated lying and conning others for profit,” and their “incapacity to experience guilt”) as the very medium by which corporations in the first-world are able to assume such an advantageous stronghold over the unassuming and underdeveloped structure in the third-word.
This behavior is disguised as “connected capitalism,” the term Robert Foster uses to refer to the post-political governance structure by which businesses preform social good in order to maximize shareholder value.
“An instrument of control and power the effects of which are hardly benign.”
While Foster, in many ways, promotes the value behind this structure in his article, his argument should be complicated. Don’t “profits and progress” conflict? The two goals are inextricably linked as Foster suggests, but one must be privileged or emphasized over the other always, or else neither are maximized and the inherent optimization behind capitalist competition is stifled.
Indeed, I argue that because not every company will engage in sustainability efforts and create lifestyle items from recycled waste, for instance, those corporations who do — cough Coca-Cola cough — must be quite sure that their profits won’t take a hit. In fact, just as Foster recognizes, certain social partnerships can even be construed as an elaborate marketing campaign to target an audience.
This just furthers the larger point in establishing corporations as psychopathic though, seeing as though their motivations are guided by proceeds, not progression.
To tie together my argument cleanly and persuasively, I turn to Jason Hickel. His article, “Aid in Reverse,” contains unshakable evidence that corporations are callously extorting money, labor and energy from the gravely under-compensated third-world slaves it employs. Somehow, though, all this is dressed up as help and service to those that need it.
Hickel hammers this point home, but does so by showing the true flow of international aid. He asserts that the usual development narrative, like the one echoed by our friends from the consortium in Chad, has it backwards: that even the illicit, unreported figures of trade mis-invoicing to first-world countries from the third-world dwarf the figures of aid receipts that run the other way by a factor of five.
Again, we find that advantage and exploitation are at the locus of this relationship and that the charade of aid is simply an illusion that “masks the maldistribution of resources” and even “prevents those who actually care about global poverty from understanding how the system really works.” With an increased regulatory presence, Hickel suggests we could “close down secrecy jurisdictions,” “slap penalties on bankers who facilitate illicit outflows,” and “impose a global minimum tax on corporate income, thereby eliminating incentive for corporations to secretly shift their money about.”
But such an environment can only be reached once we make the “r” in CSR stand for responsibility, not righteousness…