A Peaceful War on CSR – Making CSR work for the poorest

By Sudhir K. Sinha

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By Sudhir K. Sinha


“Satyagraha” is Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of determined but nonviolent resistance—a sort of peaceful war. Now, CSR Satyagraha is a peaceful war being waged in India on corporate social responsibility (CSR), to fight the manufactured euphoria and increasing insincerity and commercialization of CSR, and instead ensure that it supports society’s poor, vulnerable and marginalized. The initiative, of India’s CSR Inc., is aimed at leading this transformation in the CSR landscape. It is a Gandhian way to assert the need for change in the beliefs and actions of CSR stakeholders to practice “transformational CSR over transactional philanthropy.”

What is the state of affairs of CSR in India, and why is immediate action necessary?


CSR is failing.
While companies are making tall claims, and glorifying CSR and marketing it for brand building, we are simultaneously witnessing widening economic disparities and inequalities. This is giving rise to growing dissatisfaction, distrust and simmering hostility among communities and civil societies against capitalism. It is difficult to find examples of companies’ CSR truly alleviating poverty or suffering, or contributing to a resilient society. Something has gone amiss.


What made CSR unsuccessful?
The idea of social responsibility has, more often than not, worked in isolation instead of collaboration with the state in attempting to fulfill its “duty” toward the U.N. development goals. This siloed approach severely limits CSR’s impact.


Who failed CSR?
Although companies are largely responsible for CSR’s failure, they alone cannot be held responsible. Stakeholders of CSR, such as governments, nonprofits, consultants, CSR managers, media and agencies (awards, rating and reporting) are jointly and equally responsible for it. Each has contributed to CSR’s commercialization and superficiality.


CSR needs to work better.
While commercialization of CSR is undesirable, making a business out of it to benefit all but the actual needy is simply unethical and outright insensitive to those it purports to help. This pressing concern indicates why action is needed now to clean up CSR and set it on the path for which it was originally intended: making it work for the world’s underserved population.


A peaceful and nonviolent war can stop wrongdoing.
CSR Satyagraha seeks to hold companies and stakeholders accountable to the core principles of CSR: doing it right and doing it right each time. Satyagraha will continue to alert offenders and peacefully demonstrate against the ongoing misuse and abuse of CSR. Since CSR in India now is driven by an act, Satyagraha can specifically point out where public policies and government systems diverge from CSR. This “war” also calls attention to those unscrupulous rating, reporting and award-giving agencies that have made CSR a business. This movement similarly will identify CSR managers and leaders whose lack of skill and effectiveness continues to set a low bar for CSR. This is a double whammy, as those who should be promoting CSR are actually acting in a way that is more destructive than constructive. Satyagraha also rails against a culture where poverty is discussed at opulent events that rarely result in concrete plans and actions.


How will Satyagraha work?
Satyagraha supports stakeholder engagement within CSR, to better understand why CSR is failing. Critical questions need to be asked, such as: Is CSR helping poor people to help themselves? Is CSR working enough toward making our communities resilient? Is CSR making efforts to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich? Are approaches to CSR inclusive? What is the purpose of doing CSR—is it social, business, political or something else? Are all stakeholders of CSR, including corporations, aligned with a common agenda of development, or are they driven by their separate motivations, reaching a common destination?

Although CSR Satyagraha is getting support and receiving endorsements, it has also received some criticism and questions. Satyagraha is a peaceful war on CSR, not a platform for activism. We remain hopeful that by adhering to Gandhi’s principles for practicing Satyagraha, we will achieve the change in CSR that society so desperately needs.


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