CSR uncovered

The article that Claire Bennett wrote on discouraging people from going out to Nepal to help and instead donating to those organisations on the ground reminded me of this satirical remix of American Boy, renamed Development Boy is about people who are too scared to go to the inner city, but feel at home in the shanty towns of developing country, because they know how good it will look in their interview for a corporate consultancy job.

I know people who do help out at home and abroad and for them is just a natural passion for what they love doing. For them it’s a vocation, not a line on a CV. So it’s a minority of people who are Gap Yahs or Development Boys. Having said that, it’s easy to fall into the trap and I did myself!

I went on a youth leadership trip (if ever there was an “ego massage” youth leadership activities are it) to South Africa. The idea was to learn from campaigning and community groups in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as in Swaziland. Reverse development in a sense. But actually arriving in South Africa, we tripped up on paradox upon paradox.

“Monday was checking into the trendiest hotel I’ve ever seen. It was like Hotel Babylon — with lifts themed around shark cages and cable cars — a swimming pool circling the restaurant and a climbing wall outside the hotel, so much for fighting consumerism.

We did manage to squeeze a trip to the Robben Island Museum, not being able to make the trip to the island itself because of lack of demand. I’ll leave you to think about the uncomfortable paradox between the shark cage lift and the human cages on the island. We also got the cable car up to Table Top Mountain which talks for itself I guess.”

It got worse…

On the sixth day of my South African trip and escorted by the local police, we visited a Children’s Village in the million strong Orange Farm township. We went there to paint their new dormitories, but arriving with our buffet bellies and branded tshirts, we wondered if it didn’t cost more to bring us here as part of a corporate volunteering initiative.

Wouldn’t it have been better to employ local employees to paint and use their skills to develop their own trade?
Should the orphans be lodged in an orphanage so isolated from the local community or should they live with the extended family where they can create networks of trust and build social capital — where they would have the opportunity to find a job in the future?

We then visited a factory from a multinational dark fizzy juice brand. Maybe aware that the majority of youth and student leaders sat around their boardroom were more interested in workers’ rights than profit margins, they started off by telling us about freedom of association and collective bargaining. 71% of their associates are union members, they have a recognition agreement with the main union, they have full-time shop stewards and they hold annual wage negotiations. All permanent associates are entitled to transport allowance and study assistance to further their education which is covered by the company. As well as their company wellbeing program, their HIV/AIDS service provision benefits the “associate” plus one partner and up to 3 children under the age of 21.

So what we found is that the staff benefits were fairly good, but this didn’t cover neither agency nor temporary workers…sounds familiar?

Many of you will be aware of the scandal involving said brand in Colombia. The company itself argued that it was working with the International Labour Organisation on child labour and had developed a guide and principles for suppliers to ensure the supply chain was ethical.

How do we engage constructively with corporate social responsibility projects by companies who we want to hold to account? Do we accept their “goodwill”? Do we refuse contact?

Do we need to engage young people more on corporate social responsibility and how they can play a role in this debate?