Dealing with Despots - By Celesa Horvath

Celesa Horvath is a consultant, with 20 years of experience in corporate responsibility, sustainability, and environmental assessment. Her blog,Making Sense of Responsibility, aims to engage and support those who would further the art and science of corpo
Mar 23, 2011 2:48 PM ET
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Dealing with Despots


Each day, the Globe and Mail – one of Canada’s national newspapers – runs a reader poll on a “hot topic.”  Today, in light of current events in Libya and elsewhere, the poll, under the heading “Dealing with Despots,” asks readers, “What is the most important duty for a Canadian business operating in an authoritarian country?” and provides the following response options:

  • To make money and protect its investment
  • To keep corrupt elites from looting revenues owed to locals
  • To protest when human rights abuses are detected
  • To provide local development to workers and communities
  • To insist on democracy development

The very structure of the response options reveals one of the most egregious and persistent misperceptions of corporate responsibility: that it’s fundamentally an “OR” decision, that we can either make money and protect our investment or we can fight corruption, protect human rights, promote democracy, and provide community benefits, implying that these actions do not contribute to return on investment.

In fact, taking a proactive stance on issues of corruption, human rights, community development, and governance can help to establish a more stable government and regulatory regime, build social capital among affected stakeholders, and secure a licence to operate, all enhancing the likelihood of protecting the original corporate investment and achieving a positive ROI.

The poll, as written, reflects thinking from an Age of Externalities, when the social and environmental implications of how we made a buck amounted to an SEP: Somebody Else’s Problem.  In this context, the first response option essentially represents a compliance strategy, by which a corporation might rationalize its business in an authoritarian country by demonstrating compliance with applicable laws and regulation in the host country, implying fulfilment of its corporate responsibility.  But this option is silent on the non-financial implications of a compliance strategy, and, moreover, completely disregards the opportunity foreclosed by such an approach.  Now, it is increasingly recognized that not only are the social and environmental costs of business arguably within the scope of a corporation’s responsibility to address, but, further, that a proactive stance on environmental, social, and governance issues can in fact present an opportunity to enhance ROI while also benefiting other stakeholders.  Thus, corporate responsibility is often an “AND” decision, as in, “the most important duty for a Canadian business operating in an authoritarian country is to fulfill its corporate responsibilities of making money in an ethical, legal, and fiscally, socially, and environmentally responsible way, and if it cannot do so, to explore alternative strategies, including, if necessary, the withdrawal of its business from that country.”  Where is that response option?!

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