By Mallen Baker
I am about to be mean to an organisation whose work I generally respect. But Christian Aid's Behind the Mask: The Real Face of CSR- has got my goat.
It attacks the growing corporate responsibility (CR) movement on the basis that it is a front for companies that simply want to avoid regulation. It uses three case study examples to support its claims. And it concludes by calling for legislation identical to the CORE bill, arguing for mandatory reporting and a UK equivalent to the US Alien Torts Claims Act.
Why is it such a poor contribution to the debate? Mostly because its arguments do not follow from its claimed evidence, and its proposed prescription for action would not address the problems it highlights. Whilst claiming to be a report, it is really rather flabby polemic.
Let's start with the case studies. The examples given in the document (British American Tobacco in Kenya, Coca-Cola in India, and Shell, in Nigeria), written in a highly subjective style, often drawing from interviews with very small numbers of people, are as powerful as they are one-sided.
Aid, by their own admission, refused to meet or talk to BAT during the
period of research for the report. They say this was for fear of
�compromising their independence�. BAT has provided a point for point
rebuttal subsequently, which at least shows they have something of
substance to say. Likewise, Coca-Cola, on its website, notes that the
comments on its operations seem to have been drawn from press reports,
not from original research and, again, not direct contact.
If these companies have a case to answer, that case is surely undermined by Christian Aid's process here, which seems less than wholeheartedly committed to hearing both sides of the argument.
But that isn't
even the point. Frankly, every word Christian Aid says about these three
companies could be true and it wouldn't in the least support its
contention that the CR movement generally is discredited as a result.
There is no objective analysis of the achievements and progress of
corporate responsibility, and therefore no real insights on the genuine
failings that no doubt remain to be resolved. Just three case studies.
If an under-graduate student had produced such feeble link between
evidence and analysis it would have been sent back with a pretty poor
It matters. This well publicised attack on the movement has a real impact on the thousands of people who spend their professional lives trying to help their companies make a positive difference. The people who place their trust in organisations like Christian Aid have a right to a rather better than this.
The policy prescriptions are the icing on the cake. There seems to be little more than a general contention that they would make any difference at all to the problems they purport to address.
Compulsory social and environmental reporting would be unlikely to set the bar beyond what Shell and BAT already do in this area. Likewise, if the proposal to extend the dominance of UK law into the developing world (which some would find offensive arrogance in itself) were likely to be effective in bringing companies to heel, it's surprising that the equivalent US Alien Torts Claims Act hasn't achieved this in relation to their Coca-Cola case study example.
If the answer to bad companies is to pass bad laws, then we have a real winner here. One might as well propose that there should be a law to abolish nasty things and require nice ones.
When it comes to corporate responsibility Christian Aid is not yet a master of its brief.
The real sorrow is that it seems that key NGOs have now turned their back on the opportunity that CR represents, to fall back on easy anti-corporate messages that play well to their core constituencies whilst providing no useful solutions. It is a real missed opportunity.
An Article from Ethical Corporation, Issue Number 0,
dated 23 Feb 2004
By Mallen Baker