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September 24, 2011

Evil for good

Serendipitous events have encouraged me to write about work: The mighty Mr. J. over at Tales From the Hood blog has initiated an Aid Blog Forum. His goals are to generate conversations around certain topics relevant to aid work. You can see his call to arms here.

His first topic up for discussion is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR, if you're an acronym junkie). As J. points out, there are many forms. Here's my low down on a couple.

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In the USA

In everyday life in the States, it seems we generally think of CSR as something "certified," for example fair trade coffee or conflict-free diamonds or pretty much anything having to do with REI.

This is marketing, pure and simple - and it works. Prices are raised a little. People choose to pay a little more and support "goodness". Profits are made. That's cool.

But are we (consumers) thinking about it properly? What does "certified" mean? In my examples above, certification means there is some kind of control or regulation of the process by which the product is produced. It's never black or white, but I know that sometimes this "certification process" is totally bullshit.

Those local farmers in Rwanda, Kenya, or Ethiopia who made your fair-trade coffee probably didn't get the global market price for their coffee and still have trouble feeding their kids. In certain contexts it's pretty easy to bribe someone to get "evil diamonds" mixed in with a batch of "good diamonds", and they sparkle just the same.

It's not to say to hell with CSR in this form, it's just to say that it's not always such a pink and shiny simple solution to the world's problems. It is a step in the right direction. It gets people thinking about world problems. And sometimes "certified" might actually mean something. But I doubt if we will save the world this way.

(You may have noticed I didn't bash REI... eh, I admit I'm a fan. NOT for their CSR BS, but rather 'cause they make good shoes and gear, and it's worth it when you get a good sale on.)

* * *
In Aid Work

In aid work, I think of CSR generally as philanthropy by a corporation and can come in two forms: stuff or money.

Stuff has a high probability of being categorized as SWEDOW (stuff or shit we don't want, copyright J.), and usually that means the "needy" folks being "helped" don't want it either. (See Footloose post for an example.)

Of course sometimes there are products that could be useful to the "needy" folks and then donated by a corporation, and can thus do some good. An example: A water quality expert was on his way to a big disaster brought some machines to donate to local chlorine producers to increase their production capacity of this much needed product. Why this is a good example: The product was needed for the context, the recipients were already using the product, basically the whole donation was made with forethought about contextual need and appropriateness (and in fact communication with some folks on the ground before hand).

But if forced to get off the fence, I'd say that stuff donated for CSR is pretty much stupid. No, not categorically, but usually. And when I say usually I don't mean 51% of the time, but more like 95-99% of the time.

Money donated by a corporation can have negative connotations associated with it in the aid world, but money is money is money. If it's donated well and used well, then to hell with idealistic hang-ups.

A colleague once said "I wouldn't want to put a Wal-mart logo on my wells..." Why the hell not? We put US-AID or ECHO or OFDA or whatever other humanitarian donor logo you like on our wells. We put our silly NGO logo on the well. Why not Wal-mart? Because they are big and evil? Fine they are evil, all the better to take their money and use it for good! (Evil laughter ensues.)

Good donor-ship is a huge topic in and of itself, as is good use of donor money (i.e. good projects), but if there is a little common sense employed, aid can really benefit from a diversification of donors - including corporations.

The sad thing is that common sense isn't always employed. To save the world, NGOs need money. They don't often have the power (or the balls) to say "No" and don't often have the time (or the money) to educate a new corperate donor of the real needs of a strong project. This too often leads to bad projects, or worse to harm.

* * *
Corporate Social Responsibility isn't going to save the world, but like anything, if used intelligently it can be part of the solution and I am all for harnessing evil for good.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as my blog post makes it out to be.
-Fist of all, I am being pretty naive to think we can harness all evil for good. A lot of corporations don't give a rat's ass about saving the world, but rather focus on taking over the world.
-Second, I have assumed NGOs know what they are doing (not always the case) and that "normal" institutional humanitarian donors are some sort of saints (not always the case).
-Third, I've left out some important scenarios... but you don't really want to read 75 pages of blabber anyway.

Saving the world is pretty complex shit. Read the other posts in this CSR series by clicking here, and new information will be brought to light, man.


  1. We all know that you gotta feed the monkey, man. I'm just glad that you're privy to all the new shit.

    Aja's old meat locker

  2. Your comment really ties the room together.