Democratising Responsible Enterprise in Asia and the World

Many of these characteristics are not unique to Asia, but are found in Latin America and Africa. They are characteristics of a ‘Southern’ form responsible enterprise. Discussing differences between East and West has always been popular and current shifts in power make it more so – something we play on with the theme of this Annual Review. However, we should never lose sight of how these are simply imagined communities with imaginary boundaries. Some fall into a trap of describing the East or West as entirely separate and internally coherent entities that act as conscious beings, so that “the West” can be said to “worry” about “the East”, for instance.70 The problem is that by trying to distinguish one from the other we may deny aspects of both that are universal, and restrict their identity to past forms, rather than an unfolding of possibilities.

The division between “East” and “West” is a product of European history and literature over hundreds of years, which made a distinction between European Christendom and the cultures it was coming to know to its East. The Western world and Western culture are imagined today often as typified by rationalism, science, freedom of thought, individualism, human rights, democratic values, and either Christianity or secularism. In describing an Eastern Turn we are not describing a turn away from these cultural traditions. First, because we do not recognise them as owned by a place called ‘West’. The foundations of contemporary rational thought and mathematics are found in ancient conceptual developments in the Middle East.71 Not only did Christianity arise from the Middle East but it arrived and thrived in India even before it took hold in Rome.72

The second reason we do not imply a turning away from certain values is that we do not accept the implication that there are not equally important traditions that emphasise personal liberty and democratic values from within Asia. Anwar Ibrahim has reflected on these various traditions and reminds us that the struggles against colonialism in Asia and subsequent “national independence would not have been possible without the prior cultivation of the spirit of liberty and nurturing of the aspiration for a just social order.”73 One of the most eloquent summaries of the interface between rationalism, freedom, spirituality and progress was made by Filipino José Rizal in 1883, when he lectured a Spanish audience that “humanity will not be redeemed while reason is not free, while faith would want to impose itself against the facts, while whims are laws and where there are nations that subjugate others.” We may recall that democracy was thriving in many countries in the East before it arrived in Spain, to further highlight the fallacy of assuming West and East to be a distinction based on a historical embrace of different values.74 Therefore we agree with Ibrahim’s assertion that “it is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties. To say that freedom is western or unasian is to offend our own traditions, as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustice.”75 Even the religion most often cited as justifying forms of hierarchy, Confucianism, does not provide a rebuttal of the need for personal freedom. Confucius advocated the primacy of the self, the individual and the community as sine qua non for human flourishing.76

Instead, in describing an Eastern Turn we point to an opening up of possibilities of beliefs and approaches to all aspects of society, and thus a questioning of some assumptions that underlie existing debates and activities on corporate responsibility. The Eastern Turn is not a turning away from the West but away from an assumption of a singular source of imagination. It is not a turning away from the values people often ascribe to Western culture, but an opening up to a broader dialogue of values.77 With this in mind, before we conclude this introduction we wish to sound two warnings, one for Eastern professionals, the other for Western.

As discussed earlier, Asian companies’ voluntary engagement with the social and environmental performance of their business has been very influenced by the West. This approach may risk downplaying or even ignoring local stakeholder interests in the role and performance of business. In discussions with CSR professionals in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia one the current authors heard the view that most local stakeholder interests in business performance can be articulated through government, and, where that is not the case, that those stakeholder interests are not particularly urgent. That view may be a result of the dominant role of the state in many Asian countries and the variable, still often weak, levels of civil society organising, media independence and political debate.78 We consider this state of affairs may hamper the emergence of domestic responsible enterprise agendas in some countries in Asia.

Such an emergence may also be hampered by the imbalance in domestic voices involved in shaping the future of responsible enterprise in Asia. The evidence from five CSR conferences in Asia attended by one of the currrent authors during 2008, is that the corporate responsibility debate in Asia is shaped by business leaders, government officials and high-society elites, rather people who are directly impacted within the region.

There is some evidence for this elitist approach to CSR from analyses of lack of performance by large Asian firms on issues that are awkward for elites: corruption and labour rights. Only about 5% of Japanese companies with a high risk exposure to corruption were found by EIRIS to have a good response and none had an advanced one, which is less than that of assessed companies in Europe, North America and Australasia. Japan also performed less well than those regions on labour rights, with no assessed company with a high risk exposure to suply chain labour issues having better than a limited management response and nearly 80% having no evidence at all of a response.79

If Western imposition and local elitism dominates responsible enterprise agendas in Asia, rather than a more organic emergence of ideas and innovations from dialogues and contestations of people from across the region, the loss will be both Asia’s and the world’s. One implication, therefore, is the need for greater awareness of the levels and nature of endogenous desire across Asia for socially progressive enterprise, and the relative roles of government, business and wider civil society in shaping and responding to that desire, a reason for this review (see: From CSR in Asia to Asian CSR)

Researchers and consultants from the West can relate to this Eastern Turn in power in progressive or regressive ways. One lesson from this economic crisis is the danger of intellectuals seeking favour with the powerful and therefore ignoring fundamental problems (See: Rent-a-geek). At this time of new levels of global exchange, we would do well to watch our own interests and emotions.

A growing trend is for Western CSR professionals to look East. This is due to an awareness of where key challenges lie, but also because of the changing market for professional services, accentuated by the recession in Europe and US. As consultants with much to learn about the cultures where they are offering services, clearly they may be humble and polite in offering their views. However, in the same breath as speaking of the need to learn from cultures of the world, some CSR consultants and advocates known to one of the current authors, have been expressing doubts about values such as human rights, in particular labour and political rights. We must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of environmental consultants in the 1990s who extended their offerings to social advisory, and often fundamentally misunderstood notions of labour rights, in ways that initially made them more attractive to those corporate clients not wanting to address thorny issues of trade union rights and gender equality. The current global shifts provide wonderful possibilities for personal and professional development, no more so than helping Westerners escape, on the one hand, the asphyxiating arrogance of assuming one’s culture to be the most advanced, and on the other, a confusion about meaning and purpose in one’s life.

» Conclusion: A Global Satyagraha

(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)

This section can be referenced as:

Bendell, J., and C Ng, ‘Introduction’, in J. Bendell, N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines. (Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)

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