CSR in Difficult Times
Anyone who is in CSR probably thinks that it’s a tough thing to do - which it is!
But we can all draw inspiration from people who are really doing it tough by trying to get CSR embedded in particularly difficult times. Lebanon is such a place.
I was at CSR Lebanon’s recent CSR Forum, and it was the most responsi-glamorous group of speakers with whom I have shared the stage. Georg Kell was there, along with the inimitable David Grayson, influential local business figures and Lebanese Government Ministers (all of whom agreed publicly that the Lebanese Government was quite ineffective in many ways!).
While we were at the conference, rockets were fired from Syria into a Lebanese town (killing two) and it appears as though chemical weapons were set off in Khan al-Assal, a Syrian town not all that far from Beirut. It was remarkable that we were quite so close to those events, and that no-one seemed bothered at all by the sort of thing that would make most of us really freak out! Reactions ranged from a shrug of the shoulders to statements like, “Well, we expected it to happened, so it’s not really a surprise.” The closest anyone got to recognising that there was any danger at all was someone who said, “I am Lebanese, so it’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
All of which makes me wonder how CSR needs to be different in an environment with relatively weak government and the very real possibility of war interrupting civil life and business. Of course it makes a difference; for some investments, it doesn’t matter if there is otherwise a high ROI, business won’t invest in certain areas because of the possibility that operations will immediately cease. And short-term gain seems to pervade business transactions, which probably sounds familiar to those of you who have to satisfy quarterly report targets. The difference is that short-termism is on an almost transactional basis – you live and die by the next deal that is done. Which probably sounds very familiar to most sales staff!
There is a certain sense of urgency and opportunism which doesn’t seem to be present in other places I frequent, but there are a remarkable number of similarities, and CSR professionals in Lebanon have many of the same challenges as those anywhere else. I think that some principles of embedding CSR apply regardless of context, and here are my key thoughts about how to make CSR work, whatever the context.
Firstly, find a CSR champion. Find someone who is already a little bit famous and get them to tell a good and compelling story about CSR and how it makes a difference to business. If no-one of note is available, then create someone!
For Lebanon at the moment, it seems that is Khaled Kassar, who is passionately pursuing CSR for business in Lebanon. His determination to achieve a better brand of business within Lebanon is remarkable. The people who work for him seem to find endless energy for the cause, because they believe in both the cause and also in Khaled. That sort of visible passion goes a long way to giving people permission to think differently and bring about positive change.
But let’s not forget that he stands (as we all do) on the shoulders of giants who have gone before him. Adnan Kassar (no relation) was integral in the founding of the Global Compact, and was honoured in a ceremony at the Forum and presented with an award by Georg Kell. And there have been others before him and since that have stood as inspirers of the Lebanese business community.
Passionate Ordinary Folk
For every CSR champion, there need to be many ordinary people who are passionately committed to making business more responsible. For Khaled Kassar, it is his team at CSR Lebanon. For other Lebanese companies it is the managers and junior staff that feel passionately about recycling, or customer service, or helping unemployed young people or whatever other CSR issues drives them to go above and beyond minimum performance.
It seems as if getting out of the way of what people feel passionately about has rewards not only for the people involved but also for the business in terms of increased loyalty and increased productivity. Which is why companies are putting so much money into engaging staff in new ways; releasing their creativity, values and energy into doing good work and also into doing good.
Collaboration on CSR
CSR can’t be done alone, which is probably why in the early years of CSR (and even now), professionals in the area feel a solidarity which means they are relatively comfortable talking openly to other CSR professionals.
Professor David Grayson launched his most recent book, Corporate Responsibility Coalitions (co-authored with Jane Nelson). He rightly identifies that “coalitions can provide neutral ‘safe space’ where business executives can come together to honestly discuss their sustainability challenges and experiment with possible solutions …”(p.115). Coalitions (especially where they are business-led) have had a profound effect on CSR. CSR Lebanon is well placed to lead such collaborations in Lebanon and also perhaps the wider Middle East.
Gathering together like-minded people to create a virtuous circle instead of a downward spiral of opportunism regardless of consequences is important everywhere.
It’s not exactly clear how Lebanon’s CSR will be different to the rest of the world, but it seems like they care deeply about biodiversity (not all that surprising given their national symbol, the Lebanese Cedar, is under significant threat from climate change), about social entrepreneurship and about helping the government to be more effective (or at least in finding alternative mechanisms to work around failures). It’s difficult to put my finger on the indicators, but there is also something distinctly French about the flavour of CSR in Lebanon.
As an outsider to Lebanon, I can’t possibly tell a story as powerfully as either of those two because they are simply more culturally relevant than I.
Limitation of the Number of Issues
I’ve seen a few CSR professionals get burnt out, and one of the most common causes is spreading themselves too thin. One of the ways to prevent this is to target a small number of issues, fix them, and then move on to the next set of issues. To shed some light on that, I don’t know any CSR professional that rationally concludes that their work is done. The list of problems and opportunities that CSR populates is long and seemingly endless.
The Forum targeted a few issues, and encouraged companies to look at those issues as a first priority. The participants will have a much better idea than I do as to whether the team got the selection of issues right, but for me the limitation of discussion to a few of the most important issues was the right approach.
CSR Lebanon has been operating in Lebanon for several years, with what seems to be ever increasing political tensions and challenges to CSR at every turn. Of course there are other contexts in which CSR is being pursued bravely – not least of which South Africa, one of the first countries to legislate on CSR. But let’s not lose hope that CSR can drive better business in all sorts of contexts.
After all, whether you call it CSR, Sustainability, Responsible Business or any other thing, it should be all about how well companies are assisting communities where they operate to be stronger and more effective.
Lebanon, in spite of the challenges you face, you're emerging as a leader for the region.