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Letter from USA: Perspectives on charity work and CSR


As a I nonchalantly logged on to Facebook this morning to browse some recently posted pictures, I noticed some disturbing sights. Among the images of New Year’s Eve celebrations and inebriations, recent friends’ gatherings, and holiday outings, I came upon someone’s posting of a recent Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) donation event at the new cite La Vallette in Bambous, a social housing project financed by Médine and the government and where many families were relocated in 2009. The album’s title contained the language “CSR donation aux plus démunis.” These were striking black and white pictures of the most “needy” children, set against the barren background of concrete block social housing, NGO and social workers grouped and looking concerned, the wind blowing through the straight tree-less streets, sun beating onto the black tarred roads, white collar workers carrying boxes of goods into people’s homes. Contrasting images of victims and saviors. People’ anonymous faces posted on Facebook as grateful recipients of generous donors, all under the benevolent banner of the private sector’s most current favorite branding: the CSR scheme.

The Corporate Social Responsibility Scheme (CSR) was developed following legislation passed in 2008 to constrain for-profit companies to donate 2% of their profit to social services. A CSR committee, composed of members of the private sector, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), and representatives of the government, is responsible for liaising between corporations and NGOs, and establishing a list of NGOs eligible to receive funding. The committee does not intervene in the CSR budget, which in 2010 ranked up to Rs 800 million. As l’Express of June 24th 2010 noted, the CSR is a direct partnership between the private sector and civil society. Funds are disbursed directly from corporations to NGOs according to certain pre-established criteria and a general framework that defines areas of intervention.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is obviously some moral good with donations to the poor and the needy. There is a degree of righteousness with creating legislation making for-profit companies who exploit people’s labor, donate a minimal part of their profit and revenue to the “social good.” These are certainly dominant ideas in society and they go quasi unchallenged in the Mauritian press: giving to charity is a good thing; Non Governmental Organizations are necessary for society and poverty alleviation; the CSR scheme will make the provision of social services more professional, among other ideas.

What I want to address and outwardly denounce in these pictures concern the structural and moral role of CSR and charity work. The truth is, Corporate Social Responsibility and other forms of corporate charity work primarily serve the interest of the state and the corporations, not the poor. They desist the state from its primary responsibility to serve the public good, serve as further branding mechanisms for corporations, reduce the provision of social services to free market logic, selectively deliver social services, and hide the relations of exploitation that creates inequality in society in the first place. Let me explain each of these further.

The first major issue is that the CSR desists the state, an institution that supposedly exists to serve the public good, from doing exactly that. By state, I don’t mean any specific elected government in power, but I speak of the state as an institution that transcends the waves of elected officials, a durable and powerful institution in the modern world today. Corporate Social Responsibility allows the state to externalize its responsibilities to the Non Governmental Organization sector via the private for-profit sector. This means that the provision of basic social services, considered Common Good in our society, such as education, disability services, environmental stewardship, social housing, etc. are at the hands private donor money. As such, CSR is a privatization of what should be public social services, and contributes to the continued dismantling of the welfare state, already begun since the 1970s structural adjustments and Mauritius’ turn to privatization and neoliberalism.

One might say, what is wrong with that picture? Doesn’t CSR make the provision of social services more efficient? Isn’t CSR regulated by the state anyway? Aren’t NGOs “closer” to the population than the state? Perhaps yes is the partial answer to all these questions. But even if it is, it does not matter. The tremendously dangerous aspect of exporting social services to the private sector is that the private sector has its own interests in mind, and the provision of donor money – while regulated by the CSR committee supposedly according to national priorities - is nevertheless disbursed according to those private interests. It leaves it up to corporations to finance whatever cause they find suits them better, not causes that are established to be necessary by the public for the common good. One primary example of this is to see Non Governmental Organizations that are set up by corporations themselves, as extensions of their very entities, or the number of NGOs who have complained of not being put on the CSR list or not being well represented in the CSR committee. Corporations do not have the interest of all the population in mind and they do not represent the population. Neither do NGOs. Corporations’ bottom line is profit and commitment to shareholders, not to the poor. It serves corporations’ image well to appear as altruistic institutions, with higher moral operating principles than profit.

The second reason why CSR needs to be challenged is that structurally, CSR schemes mask the relations of exploitation that corporations impose and enact in society. CSR further obfuscates the fact that poverty does not happen by chance, it is not a random societal phenomenon that “just happens.” Poverty is a relational phenomenon. It is a relationship between the poor and the rich. And let’s be clear that corporations’ leadership (and ownership) represent the richest people in Mauritius. In fact, we are talking about a handful of oligarchic families. There are poor people because there are other people who become rich because of them. The rich depend on the poor’s low wages and disposable labor and skills in order to extract profit, directly or indirectly. Structurally, poverty and wealth have always coexisted; the powerful need to exploit the poor to stay rich, despite all the riche might say that poverty is a social ill that needs to be eradicated. If it were not for the poor, rich people would not have their sugar cane workers, their factory workers , their household labor, their street cleaners, their restaurant servers, their janitor/cleaning staff, and all the other “ti dimunn” that the rich benefit from. So, structurally, the rich need the poor in order to stay rich. In Mauritius today, there are currently 100,000 poor, out of which 30,000 live in extreme poverty. It is in the interest of their good image to “brand” CSR as a form of charity work that alleviates some semblance of social burden, as it saves themselves from being seen as exploiters of those very poor people they have made poor in the first place! At the same time, it is well known that CSR schemes throughout the world are also desired by companies for their business benefits: they improve access to capital, gain access to new markets, and and retain employees while justifying other cuts in employee benefits.

There is an additional dimension of CSR and charity work that is even more powerful and dangerous because it is all-pervasive: the cultural aspect of CSR. People from all walks of life have learned to value charity work as something inherently good and neutral in society. Charity work fulfills their religious, moral, and ethical obligations or aspirations. The cultural dimension is what allows people to perceive the juxtaposition of images of poor children and rich adults and institutions, and not feel anger, but compassion and shame. As if the juxtaposition of richness and poverty had nothing to do with one another! Culture is what makes one feel compassion and empathy in front of these images, rather than revolt and desire for profound social change. The cultural dimension is a powerful one. Anyone knows it is easy to get caught up in various charity-type acts. But this should not be done at the expense of a serious analysis of what CSR really means, and an understanding of whose interests it operates in. Let’s all try to see through the state and corporations’ schemes to imagine honest ways to alleviate poverty through models that allow for real redistribution of power and income. That is something I am sure corporations do not want to hear about.

E.Wiehe, letter from the USA