Is transformational CSR possible in Sri Lanka?

Friday, 27 February 2015 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CSR Lanka, the latest organisation to emerge on the social responsibility front, has some very ambitious plans to change the way our businesses look at social obligations. They repeatedly talk of transformational CSR. However, what it really means from a Sri Lankan context is still in somewhat murky waters, and has to be further discussed and worked out, as this new entity is just getting their feet wet in this CSR business. CSR Lanka Chairman Chandula Abeywickrema, a banker by profession in his previous life, says that transformative CSR is a dire need in our country because there are many elements on a macro level that seem to be ignored by the corporate sector. “CSR today is very inward looking; and this is not surprising because there hasn’t been a holistic approach to it and therefore companies have to get out of the ostrich mentality, look around and see how they can get some scalability to their projects and activity.”   Revisiting PPP model CSR Lanka’s key aim at this stage is to revisit the People Planet Profit (PPP) model and look at what transformation is needed to create a harmonious formula. There are two key words they use; i.e. collaborative and holistic, which they believe will go towards creating a macro perspective to the micro issues of each company. Abeywickrema points out that CSR Lanka would not be an implementation agency but will provide thought leadership and facilitate consultation and discussion locally while opening up Sri Lanka to the rest of the world in terms of knowledge exchange. CSR Lanka feels that knowledge exchange is a two-way process i.e. not only do we get knowledge from outside but our thinking and our ways of doing things must be known to the people outside. In this context it is the essence of glocalisation.   From micro to macro Transformative CSR from this perspective is from micro to macro, where companies look at issues on the larger canvass rather than from a parochial point of view. The Chairman of CSR Lanka who has worked at HNB for close on 25 years and had been involved in development banking, said that during the height of the ’88-’89 youth uprising when the country was brought to a standstill, the then CEO of the bank, Rienzie Wijetilleke had said, “Our survival is at stake if we don’t bring inclusive financial services to the youth and rural Sri Lanka.” Abeywickrema says that this thinking was the beginning of HNB’s ‘Gami Pubudhu’ micro finance program which has over the last two decades financed over 100,000 micro entrepreneurs across the country and brought significant economic development and enrichment to their families and communities. “However, this project took almost 10 years to reach the break-even point and today it has evolved into a commercially-viable business project for the bank,” says Abeywickrema. It is clear from the example, that this model was far better than philanthropy, which CSR is mostly tagged on to today in Sri Lanka. So it looks like transformative CSR has a long gestation period but in the end the result is sustainable and creates a greater impact for both the company as well as the social environment. But even more than this, it is clearly seen that a metamorphosis is needed in the way we look at the idea of CSR; and it goes beyond just an obligation and into the ambit of actual emotional relevance to the society and environment we live in.   PPP terrain somewhat foggy CSR Lanka, however, is launched at a time when the PPP terrain has become somewhat foggy. The lines between being a good corporate citizen and a bad one are somewhat blurred; in short CSR in most cases have become very defensive where the corporate citizen believes it is a way of giving back so that the entity has a good image rather than having any sustainable mechanism built into it. CSR these days seem to be judged on how many awards a company wins. In many cases the criteria for winning the award are not at all clear and the framing of issues related to it cannot be clearly understood by all the stakeholders.   What is transformative CSR? So what is transformative CSR? In an attempt to explain this new phenomenon, the Chairman of CSR Lanka gets down to being very simplistic. He says it is “creating an impact for all the stakeholders to socially progress. In fact it is about adding another P to the PPP i.e. People, Planet, Profit and Progress. The profit has to ensure that all the stakeholders progress socially, economically and environmentally.” However, the process for sustainable CSR is not short term and what seems to be the key problem for implementing transformative CSR is that one may not get results every 12 months. The problem here is that the system demands it and the annual report for companies has become one of the main issues, as triple bottom line reporting is now becoming mandatory. Therefore, the mad rush for results-oriented short-term CSR continues. Be that as it may, CSR Lanka’s vision is to change this thinking and they say that they are in it for the long haul!

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