NGOs Call for Partnership, Not Philanthropy
BUENOS AIRES, Nov 21 (IPS) - Many corporations have transformed social responsibility into a marketing tool, to boost sales and improve their image. But today in Argentina, an alliance of civil society groups is advocating a paradigm shift, to replace philanthropy with a new business culture.
The Argentine Platform of Civil Society Organisations for Corporate Social Responsibility was created by a coalition of 17 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dedicated to the environment, the fight against corruption, and labour, gender and consumer rights issues.
Forerunners to the Argentine Platform include a campaign against sports clothing manufacturers that employ children and adolescents in their factories, carried out by the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), and the European Union's Green book on corporate social responsibility.
But the local initiative stands out as the first to emerge from such a broad-ranging alliance of civil society groups.
The Platform is based on principles that have been agreed by the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).
But its main reference point is the U.N. Global Compact, a world web of over 2000 companies along with U.N. agencies and labour and civil society groups aimed at unifying corporate policies and practices and ensuring that they are in line with universal ethical values agreed by consensus.
The Global Compact, which was officially launched in 2000, was announced by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999 when he challenged business leaders to assume an ethical commitment to nine principles relating to human rights, labour and the environment, which were later expanded to include a tenth principle against corruption.
"We are convinced of the need for a change of paradigm in terms of corporate social responsibility, to promote changes at the very core of companies and not only in their communications or public relations departments," said Virginia Lencina of Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power), a local NGO.
The Platform is open to adherence by new groups and companies, although an agenda of concrete issues has yet to be defined. "This could include collective public actions, requests for reports, or monitoring of the most controversial companies," she told IPS. Nor has the role to be assigned to the state on this issue been clearly outlined yet.
To follow up on a company accused of violating one of the principles, the modus operandi could, for example, involve a specific complaint lodged by one of the organisations - a consumer defence group, for instance - in order to take up the issue with the rest of the organisations that have adhered to the Platform.
The groups agree that it is the state that must define the rules and regulations and that has the duty to monitor businesses and enforce corporate social responsibility principles in the private sector. In that respect, the activists see it as a potential ally in pushing for the corporate culture paradigm shift.
Definitions of corporate social responsibility range from the most conservative position, which maintains that the only duty of private firms is to generate wealth, to the most progressive, which holds that companies should voluntarily donate part of their profits to philanthropic activities.
But in recent years, the strategy of using social responsibility as a marketing and public relations tool, in order to attract customers, has taken strong hold.
None of the definitions have led to a real contribution to development, argued sociologist Álvaro Orsatti, of the World of Labour Institute, another Argentine organisation taking part in the initiative.
Social "organisations want a fourth model, one that goes above and beyond the previous ones, in which the companies undergo a change in their culture," Orsatti told IPS. This vision is new in Latin America, where business philanthropy is the norm, he added.
The idea is "to create citizenship awareness among business leaders as well," said the activist.
As an example, a delegate from the AVINA Foundation - founded in 1994 by Swiss entrepreneur Stephan Schmidheiny - pointed out that the Village Cinema chain in Buenos Aires is hiring only "mothers, aunts or grandmothers" between the ages of 40 and 60, no experience required, to work in ticket offices and other positions that involve dealing with the public, for which the chain of movie theatres also offers training.
That is a concrete case of a change in business culture, of "a willingness to include" a sector that is completely marginalised from the job market, said Orsatti.
Argentina's two trade union confederations are also taking part in the Platform - "something that would have been totally unusual in the past," said the activist, who added that "we can work together on this initiative."
The Platform emerged last year out of the dissatisfaction of a number of organisations that believed companies in Argentina had a weak commitment to sustainable development. They thus began to work together to outline a coherent, alternative vision of corporate social responsibility.
In the meetings held up to now, the participating civil society organisations concurred that there is a tendency towards a concentration of wealth and corporate power, especially in the hands of transnational corporations, which are accused of following one set of standards in the industrialised world, and another in the developing South.
As its first public action, the Platform is considering issuing a warning with respect to the environmental risks posed by two pulp mills that are being built on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River, which forms part of the border between that country and Argentina. The cellulose plants have triggered a loud controversy between the two countries due to the threats to the environment..
Lencina and Orsatti said the Platform sees the case as a prime illustration of the double standards of transnational corporations (the plants are being built by Spanish and Finnish firms), which hurt countries with weak public institutions like many of the nations of Latin America, where the corporations pay lower wages than in the industrialised North, hire fewer women, pollute the environment, and bribe public officials to a greater extent.
As an illustration of Argentina's weak institutions, the Platform points to the scant power of the state regulatory agencies in overseeing public services that have been privatised. The regulatory bodies, for example, often lack the authority to prevent privatised companies from arbitrarily raising the rates they charge, or to obligate them to provide services that are often cut off without any explanation.
The activists also underlined the lack of a culture of standing up for one's rights, such as in the case of consumers' rights, in Argentina.
In response to the demands set forth by NGOs, transnational corporations often respond that there is no law requiring them to address specific concerns, "and they are often right about that," said the activists.
The few regulations that are in place are lax, and governments are keen on drawing investment, an enthusiasm that large corporations are ever-ready to take advantage of, said the representatives of the Platform, who noted that in countries of the developing South, the firms engage in practices that are illegal in their countries of origin.
Asked about their expectations and hopes for the new initiative, Claudia Collado, with the Argentine Consumers association, told IPS that her group was interested in taking part in the new vision "because we believe that if we focus on creating independent consumers, they will have the power to reward socially responsible companies."
Claudia Llantada, with the Gender and Trade Network, also believes the Platform can be a useful instrument for making progress towards her organisation's goals.
She observed that despite the fact that women are playing a larger and larger role in the labour market, the conditions under which that trend is occurring put them at a disadvantage with respect to men. To illustrate, she noted that women comprise a majority in the poorest-paid jobs, and in the informal sector of the economy.
"Companies are prejudiced against hiring women because they fear that the labour costs will be much greater, even though it has been demonstrated that this is not true," she commented.
Javier Corchera with the Wildlife Foundation, a local environmental group associated with the World Wildlife Fund, remarked that many companies "start to worry about the environment when the fire is already burning out of control," rather than taking measures to prevent conflicts from breaking out in the first place.
"Environmental questions should form part of a company's value system, which is why we are calling for a cultural change," he told IPS.
"So far, it has been easy for companies to follow their own agendas, but they will have to talk seriously with leading civil society actors" if the Platform initiative takes off, he warned. (END/2005)