THE LIFEWORTH REVIEW OF 2008

From CSR in Asia to Asian CSR

The shift in power from the West to the ‘rest’ indicates a growing role for Asian enterprise, not only within Asia itself but also in the rest of the world. Consequently, the evolution of corporate responsibility concepts, policies, practices and initiatives across the region is important worldwide. In the last quarter of 2008 a flurry of conferences confirmed the growth of corporate responsibility as a topic of business interest in the region. Despite the economic downturn, Singapore hosted a number of these events, beginning in October 2008 with the Asia Pacific Academy of Business in Society (APABIS)30 gathering academics and business people to develop this emerging network. The following month delegates amassed at the Asian Forum on CSR,31 which focused on giving executives a platform to promote their corporate responsibility programmes, and then at the Global Social Innovators Forum,32 which celebrated individuals who are innovating new approaches in both business and charity, to address public challenges.

CSR Asia Executive Director Erin Lyon: ‘companies listed in Hong Kong demonstrate a superior quality of CSR disclosure’

CSR Asia Executive Director Erin Lyon: ‘companies listed in Hong Kong demonstrate a superior quality of CSR disclosure’

The most content-driven event of the conferencing season was the CSR Asia Summit33 in Bangkok, which brought together innovative practitioners from different sectors, chosen by the leading specialist consultants on corporate responsibility in the region, CSR Asia. The very growth of this organisation, now with dozens of staff in five offices, is an indicator of the development of the responsible business agenda. At the summit, Leontien Plugge of the Global Reporting Initiative highlighted that Asia is now the second largest reporting region, although this is mainly due to the high rate of sustainability reporting in Japan. As some Asian governments and stock exchanges had announced during 2008 that they will introduce requirements to report on CSR and sustainability, other countries’ reporting rates are set to increase.34 To gauge the general level of CSR disclosure at present, the ‘CSR Asia Business Barometer 2008’ was launched at the event. This report compares the CSR disclosure of the 20 largest listed companies in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Commenting on the results, CSR Asia’s Executive Director Erin Lyon said that ‘companies listed in Hong Kong demonstrate a superior quality of CSR disclosure’ although ‘the majority of companies listed in each of the countries have significant room for improved disclosure’. CLP (China Light & Power) came top of their ranking. A potential concern for the United Nations’ efforts in this field emerged from the study, as Ms Lyon noted that Global Compact membership had no measurable impact whatsoever on the level of disclosure of companies in the region.35

Kasit Piromya: a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and CSR

Kasit Piromya: a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and CSR

The discussions at these conferences give some insight into the emerging dimensions of Asian CSR, as a global phenomenon, rather than just CSR in Asia. First, the philosophical bases for corporate responsibility are being discussed. Kasit Piromya, the Director of International Affairs of the Democrat Party of Thailand, and the Thailand representative of the Caux Round Table, spoke at the CSR Asia Summit about a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and CSR, owing to the emphasis on stakeholder interdependence:

Buddhist monks live according to the principle of interconnectivity with the community and the environment; they are one with their stakeholders. Similarly, every individual belongs to an organization, and ultimately to society. So every individual, while working to earn a living and enjoy the rewards, is inter-dependent on the business community and society as a whole. Along with its stakeholders business is a part of a whole and thus the need for social responsibility and good governance. In particular, large multinational corporations have a global responsibility, and not only to their financial stakeholders.36

As Buddhism is one of the many spiritual traditions in the region, there is much to be drawn on in elaborating on concepts and motives for Asian CSR.

The second dimension to the evolution of an Asian CSR is the innovation that is occurring in CSR from within the region that may have a global impact. The conference in Bangkok hosted a workshop exploring a new initiative in reporting—imPACT. This approach brings together dynamic stakeholder engagement with a new approach to communication. Developed jointly by Edelman and CSR Asia, the imPACT philosophy is based on the understanding that many companies face critical societal challenges that they can play a role in addressing through outcome-oriented partnerships. Thus, CSR actions can be mobilised around issues such as climate change, water, human rights, poverty alleviation or health, so that companies become partners in addressing public need, rather than making minor improvements on a diverse set of issues aimed to benefit corporate reputation. Emphasis is placed on shared responsibility and joint accountability with the other organisations and sectors with which a company engages.37

A third dimension to the evolution of Asian CSR is the growing recognition within individual Asian countries of having the potential to play a global role. This was highlighted by the awards given out at the Global Social Innovators Forum (GSIF). The event was hosted by the Singapore-based Social Innovation Park (SIP), and focused on celebrating global leaders in social enterprise. Founder and President of SIP Penny Low said that

SIP Fellow Awards recognize outstanding and high achieving individuals who are creating systemic change in the community that they live and work in. Role models in their own fields, these individuals are action leaders, who are shaping the future in their own way and by doing what they do best. They are the future world leaders of the globe.38

The Distinguished Fellow Award went to Jet Li, the Chinese actor, for his fundraising activities during 2008. One of the Fellow Awards went to Amit Wanchoo, Managing Director of Eaton Laboratories, for his work with the poor in Kashmir. In his acceptance speech Dr Wanchoo explained that ‘in economically challenging times like these, social innovation remains more pertinent and relevant than ever’. He explained that ‘social entrepreneurship brings together everyone’s strengths to create the greatest social impact possible. I believe that collaborative innovations can help in sowing the seeds of positive change in this world for the well being of the whole humanity. We collaborate not as different sectors but as one people with one dream of a better world.’39 In discussions with the lead author of this Review, Penny Low recognised the significance of this growing international outlook: ‘The SIP Fellow Award and the SIP Distinguished Fellow Award are the first Singapore-originated awards given to international recipients who excel in the field of social innovation.’

Although there is great potential for diverse approaches to emerge and impact on the global experience of corporate responsibility, the development of CSR in Asia also poses a number of unique challenges. Currently, many Asian companies’ voluntary engagement with the social and environmental performance of their business has been very influenced by the West. Therefore, at the conferences chronicled above, senior managers and government officials expressed the view that the main motivation for improved corporate responsibility is to achieve better relations with CSR-sensitive export markets. This approach can downplay or even ignore local stakeholder interests in the role and performance of business. The assumption is made that 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 valid. This view is a result of the dominant role of the state in many Asian countries and the variable, often weak, levels of civil society organising, media independence and political debate. This state of affairs may hamper the emergence of domestic CSR agendas in Asia.

Such an emergence may also be hampered by the imbalance in domestic voices involved in shaping the future of CSR. The evidence from these conferences is that the corporate responsibility debate in Asia is being influenced not by those who are directly impacted within the region, but by business leaders, government officials and high-society elites. This may be why, even now, CSR is most often construed by Asian business leaders as corporate philanthropy. This is highlighted by the fact that all of the 2008 Asian CSR awards went to philanthropic projects, bar the workplace award for Microsoft Philippines (a company that was not facing difficult workplace issues, does not have a trade union nor a systematic approach to checking what international labour standards apply to its operations). Further illustrating an emphasis on philanthropy rather than economic justice, at the GSIF most of the examples of ‘social enterprise’ were actually charitable activities involving some trading, such as the sale of charity-branded goods. The discussion of actions transforming core business practices on issues that have involved significant conflicts with affected stakeholders were conspicuous by their absence.

Although there are signs that at both conceptual and practical levels we are seeing the emergence of Asian CSR rather than simply more CSR in Asia, currently the majority of activities carrying the CSR tag are a mix of Western imposition and preening by local elites. If this subjugated dimension to CSR in Asia dominates practice, rather than a more organic emergence of ideas and innovations from dialogues and contestations of peoples 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.

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(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 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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