Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Civics and Corporate Social Responsibility - this Missing Piece?

I considered myself to be “international” in thinking. In fact, I was quite excited when Don Purdy shared that we were going to India. I have traveled abroad on a few occasions and looked forward to a place vastly different from western culture. I am worldly – I mean I love Indian food and exploring different cultures. Sounds like the statement of a middle class ethnocentric American, which is exactly what I turned out to be.

The preparation for this trip started months before our departure – applying for a visa, vaccinations, medications, learning about the people and international business practice. This is peppered with enticing thoughts of the Taj Mahal, gold leafed Hindu temples and the pull of an exotic culture that you believe to be so vastly different from western lifestyle.  In addition, we hear about the exploding middle class in India and how their economy is one of the fastest growing in the world.  All of these things together provide context for our visit.  However, none of this prepares you for the shock of being on the ground inside a country with the second largest population in the world.

My first two days of observing the environment, culture and people was overwhelming. It was a mix of excitement for being some place different with sadness for what I perceived as a government failing to support its people. Where is the prosperity we heard about, the middle class, neighborhoods and sidewalks? The problem was, I needed to shift my thinking about what living actually was to other people. That middle class didn’t equal suburbia and SUV’s.

Chennai, our first destination, is a city that lacks infrastructure, clean water, refuse containment and adequate housing.  My first day walking around the city, I was startled by the children and women begging in the street – not just for money but for food as well. The crumbling roads and sidewalks as well as the garbage on the streets seemed surreal. It was difficult to understand how this could be the case. Yet, a short ride out of town and a turn into a technology park and one sees state-of-the-art structures and corporations. World leaders in industry – Infosys, L&T, TaTa, just to name a few. These are the corporations earning hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, in revenue.

Visiting several of these corporations and meeting company leadership was a great aspect of the trip. We had the opportunity to ask questions about human resource policy, finance, management practice and market strategy, however something I thought needed further discussion was corporate social responsibility. I struggled with this, how could I ask a question about the community and its condition without sounding condescending or ethnocentric? What responsibility do these corporations have to support the local community? It was difficult to know.

L&T created a public relations museum about their company, about innovation and infrastructure, about engineering and giving back to the community. Upon examining their examples of giving back, one can see their local investments as “shallow”. Some examples of giving back to the community included: sponsoring a cricket match; building a daycare for their workers; hosting company gatherings; and giving to name the wing of a hospital. Without the latter, all other examples do not improve the lives of those in the community who are not employees. How is a company like L&T, that builds water purification plants, airports, bridges, etc., thrive in a community where clean drinking water is not available? Support for energy and infrastructure were not examples of their contributions to the community nor was food or affordable housing.

There seems to be a disconnection between the haves and have-nots in India. Those who are educated and fortunate to be educated and working are taken care of by corporations – they receive pay that raises their standard of living and in some cases housed, fed or transported to and from the corporations. But those who are seen as have-nots, are not supported by robust social services. One did not see many not-for-profits nor heard about government programs that support individuals who do not have food, water or shelter. The second-fastest growing economy in the world can’t provide services or won’t?

There are several reasons far beyond my understanding that create this environment, but one can make a few observations. First, there are so many people that even the government could not tackle the need of the vast numbers. Second, the poor and middle-class of India have a strong dislike for politicians. Very few vote in elections and therefore one might believe that politicians would not pay attention to these members of society. Third, there is a saying of “live and let live” about the people of India. If one is born into a poorer life that is one’s lot in life and an effort to move you out of that social class is not important. And finally, unlike business in the United States, there is not pressure by peer corporations to invest in communities to compete for business.

The last thought on this subject of CSR or corporate responsibility came from a student at the National Management School. He commented that in order for India to move forward, to stop the brain drain to other countries or to entice industry leaders, researchers, entrepreneurs to come to India, their needs to be a sense of civics  - civics in terms of how people relate their lives to their communities, towns and regions. The sense that by investing in one’s community is investing in the future is not imbedded in India’s culture.  It is this missing piece – the social responsibility and civics – that will need to change for India to solidify its place as a leader in the global economy.  


Tom LaFrate said...

Absolutely to the point! My hat is off to you James!

James Ebersold said...

That is an excellent essay on some of the challenges facing India and I'm glad you have discussed them.