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Going about CSR in the tough time of Covid-19

Last week I was invited by Prof Michael Hopkins to speak at one of his CSR Meetup events, these days inevitably online.

Prof Hopkins has been running these for over ten years, and in different countries around the world. Now they are being co-hosted by Globethics, the Geneva-based global ethics network, and my topic was “Corporations connecting with their communities – now and before Covid”.

I spoke from my experience in Kenya regarding CSR, and started by worrying that the perception of some in government, civil society, academia and elsewhere is that as far as the for-profit private sector is concerned, we are only in business for just that – profit. More so now during the Covid crisis, the assumption is that among the budget line items to be most speedily slashed would be the CSR one, and that other aspects of this “treating all stakeholders responsibly” to which CSR speaks would also fall by the wayside.

It is for such reasons that many outside of the private sector assume it has little to offer during this Covid-19 crisis and would not make suitable partners. This is a great shame as, largely coordinated by the umbrella body, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), lots of its members are contributing in a highly responsible, constructive, generous and coordinated way.

I remembered the troubled times around past elections in Kenya, when Kepsa developed initiatives to support social cohesion through its Mkenya Daima programmes. “They’re just doing it for business continuity,” sneered some from civil society, claiming we were only worried about peace but indifferent to justice… which was quite untrue.

I then drew examples of impactful CSR initiatives from sectors with which I am associated. Like insurance, where the Insurance Regulatory Authority recently got the industry players together to contribute to the Emergency Response Fund for Covid. Like others, we at Occidental Insurance reallocated some of our CSR budget that had been targeting communities directly and applied it into the fund.

Social responsibility is also being seen at KCA University, which has been reaching into nearby slums, both in Nairobi and in Kisumu, to assist vulnerable youth and their parents in multiple ways.

And at water and energy company Davis & Shirtliff, alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals is a no-brainer: SDG 6 seeks universal availability of water, and SDG 7 talks about access for all to clean energy.

The company, through its spread of branches around the region, partners with the surrounding communities and continues to promote these goals in a sustainable way – in fulfilment of its purpose, “To improve people’s lives by providing water and energy solutions across Africa”.

It also partners with its suppliers, and with service organisations such as Rotary, to amplify its CSR impact. Not least in ensuring the sustainability of the water supply by going beyond the mere installation of a borehole to creating a business model with the community that will allow for its maintenance and ongoingness.

Next I spoke more about Rotary, of which I have been a member for many years, turning to an aspect of CSR which although less visible is at least as significant: volunteering. Here we are not talking about the financial inputs to CSR but about all the man and woman hours.

There are around 1,200,000 Rotarians in the world, and a recent survey revealed that in the four-week reference period, between us we volunteered 5.8 million hours, delivering services worth $850 million a year.

CSR initiatives should involve employees of the organisation, whether through in-house projects or external volunteering, including through another dimension of the latter – being active in Professional and Business Member Organisations. Aside from time spent with such bodies benefitting the profession or sector, it inevitably leads to learning and growth on the part of the volunteer, as I have found in all the volunteering to which I have been exposed.

During the discussion time the plight of small-scale farmers and MSMEs was raised, and here I gave credit to large corporates such as Bidco, Coca Cola, Diageo, BAT and others who stimulate the development of bottom-of-the pyramid producers – CSR by another name.

Now more than ever is the time for CSR community engagement, not least for large and medium firms in sectors that have not been pulverised by Covid-19, to be preserved, and with all stakeholders.

Reallocated maybe, but not demolished. The behaviour of those that do so will be remembered favourably long after the crisis has calmed.