Corporate Social Responsibility = Philanthropy?
Well, No. CSR includes employee engagement, sustainable ways of doing business, improving social returns on investments, brand value and hence profits and also giving back to the community. While Corporate India will take time to implement the grander scope of CSR, we have a pressing need to make the philanthropic aspect of CSR meaningful.
Social sector with its strong yet mostly local base in India, has had minimum direct engagement with corporations in the past. On the other hand, with CSR being thrust on them, most corporations are struggling to understand and engage with this sector. As a result, there are constant complaints from both sides that the other side doesn’t understand its work, language or requirements. For example, one NGO whose key focus is training and capacity building of rural youth in Maharashtra, was constantly approached by companies who wanted to build toilets as part of their CSR. Similarly, a professional working in the sustainability department of a large corporation rued the difficulty in working with NGOs, since large corporations are mostly regarded with suspicion.
Based on my experiences with numerous NGOs from across India, here are a few pointers which can help understand this sector as well as develop robust CSR plans.
Understanding the issues: A friend had once posted a note on poverty on his FB page, to which there were comments that poverty exists because people in rural areas only reproduce and not make any effort to come out of their situation. Thankfully CSR strategies are not based on such flimsy understanding of an issue. However, one also needs to know that India and its problems are multi-layered and immensely complicated. To understand the crux of any issue, engaging with communities directly or with various NGOs and experts to gain their perspectives is imperative.
A CSR might want to work on the issue of education, but is it enough to just focus on strengthening the government system of education or provide schools which will still follow the structured syllabus? Or should one help teach life skills and scientific/analytical understanding, or provide vocational training to help youth find gainful employment/livelihood? Should the objective be providing just education or strengthening systems or helping children become responsible citizens, or all of the above?
Think long term: The advocate and founder of a Pune-based organisation working on violence against women (VAW) once mentioned that it took her almost 10 years to make the community members in Sindhudurg, Maharashtra understand that domestic violence is not a ‘way of life’.
The forest fringe village of Rampuria near Darjeeling used to rely on farming for subsistence and burnt wood to produce charcoal for income. Poverty was high. With ATREE’s (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment) support for over ten years, most households are now earning a good income through vegetable farming using poly-houses, bee-keeping, home stays, mushroom cultivation, and handicrafts etc.
Providing ‘aid’ or executing short term activities like building a school, painting murals on walls, eye-care camps, WASH melas etc. look good on annual reports and in Board meetings, but they use up a lot of money with hardly any long lasting impact on communities one intends to help. The process of change takes time; and in many cases despite years of work, problems can continue to resurface creating further hurdles in the change process.
Do not re-invent the wheel: I had once received a mail from a person who wanted to help educate women in urban slums. Her idea was to create a laundromat kind of space in slums where women could wash clothes and study in freed-up time. Where can one find space, water, electricity, or operational infrastructure in slums?
Social sector in India has a long history and is not only fairly established but also has the best connect with issues and communities.Rather than forcing ‘urban solutions’ which might not work or create parallel structures, CSRs should use the expertise of NGOs to strengthen already existing impactful programmes. Many grassroot NGOs who do exceptionally good work on-ground, lack resources or capacity to document success stories, write reports, develop communication materials or even have an effective monitoring mechanism. CSRs with their resources can help develop these organisations to deliver their requirements more effectively.
Adopting the rights-based approach: The words ‘rights-based’ always elicit two kinds of reaction – a blank stare or dread. It perhaps invokes images of ‘jhola-chap’ activists leading protest rallies against corporations and government. To put it simply, rights-based organisations act as ‘agencies’ which ensure that all government Acts, Rules and Schemes meant for the community are implemented correctly through community-based and community-led mechanisms. For example, in education, they ensure that all provisions of Right to Education Act are followed in villages/urban areas. In rural health, it is to ensure that ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) workers are performing their duties, each Primary Health Unit has all the basic medicines and a delivery unit, that doctors are answerable to communities for dereliction of duty etc.
An NGO working on community-based conservation of biodiversity in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, used the rights-based approach to create a Village Development Plan for five years. The plan developed with the help of the community, identified areas of improvement in their village such as roads, wells, ponds, water-shed management, protection of forests, market linkages for forest produces, schools etc. The organisation then converged all government schemes which could support each identified area. The budget presented for government sanction for the VDP was over Rs.3 crores. This, if implemented well, would not only ensure development of the village, provide employment to youth but also guarantee active participation of women.
Supporting Environment: Last, yet the most important aspect of a CSR is how a company defines its relationship with environment. The focus of the world is now on sustainability and CSRs across countries have been able to integrate environment into their strategies while we still regard environment with suspicion or an obstacle to profits. Adopting environmentally friendly practices and sustainable methods of doing business might take a while, but each company can start contributing a bit for the environment as part of CSR. Environment is not just about planting trees, but includes activities such as ground water recharge, water-shed development, agro-forestry, enhancing livelihood of forest -dependent communities, environmental education, solid waste management and many more.
From the land on which the office building stands to chairs, window panes and toilet papers, all are sourced from nature. It’s time that we start to return the favour to our Earth. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided an opportunity to bring sectors distrustful of each other (civil society, government and corporations) on a platform to work towards common goals. CSR, with their funds and resources, however is in the unique position to take a lead and form effective partnerships.
Bipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as a communication consultant for various NGOs and CSR projects.