Tag Archives: CSR

Give people what they want, not what the corporation wants.

“You have to give the people what they want. Otherwise, there is no point at all”.

The Cambodian man, in his 50s, looked at me with tired eyes. He had worked in the disability sector for more than a decade, often with high-level government officials. We were talking about working on some projects together, and during the discussion he was animated and passionate. Even though his enthusiasm was obvious, his weathered exterior told the tale of a tired soul. It was like he had said the above sentence so often that it had drawn youthful vigour out of him, like fuel siphoned from a car. To him, it was just common sense.

Just last week, I received an email from Jetstar Australia, an airline, announcing the winner of their Jetstar Flying Start grant. The organisation that had been selected for the prize of $15,000 cash and $15,000 worth of flights was “Shoes for Planet Earth”. In essence, this organisation takes unwanted second hand running shoes from people in Australia, puts them through a washing process, and ships them off to countries around the world, and poor locations domestically. Since launching in 2009, the organisation has delivered over 14,000 pairs of shoes through partner organisations.

Instantly, alarm bells started to ring. Without rehashing tried and tested arguments, we know that there is so much evidence about the negative impact of used clothing donations in poor countries. In fact, as we’ve previously stated on WhyDev:

Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981-2000.

So why would Jetstar choose to support an organisation that potentially could be doing more harm than good? The non-cynical part of me wanted to believe that it was all a big mistake, that Jetstar surely didn’t value attention grabbing ideas for PR more than positively affecting people’s lives. Surely.

Jetstar is exhibiting what Emily D’Ath has termed “community investment” – a “sophisticated and structured type of philanthropy”. It is also a form of corporate power.

Today more than ever, we see the influential power of corporations expanding, in shaping public perception of problems and redefining issues. Community investment and philanthropy more broadly are one way that this occurs. By selecting social issues worthy of support, and ignoring others, corporations dictate what society should see as important and pressing. In academic speak, this is known as “discursive power”: the influence of “norms, ideas and societal institutions”.

One of the most important factors in whether or not a corporation can exert discursive power is through legitimacy. If the corporation is seen to be legitimate, then their ability to wield power is increased. One way that they can do this is through partnerships with legitimate organisations. StarKids, a partnership with World Vision Australia, is one way that Jetstar have tried to achieve this.

But what about with Flying Start? Where does their legitimacy lie? I did a bit of digging to see who is responsible for selecting programs that these grants support. The answer is a panel of four individuals.

This is where you would hope that these are knowledgeable, Tim Costello-like types right? Wrong.

The panel consists of: The CEO of Jetstar Australia/New Zealand, a pilot, a TV and radio presenter, and another TV presenter.


Without being too presumptuous about the backgrounds of the panel, one could probably suggest that their expertise in development is pretty limited. This is where the system has failed. The panel for selecting programs aimed at improving the lives of poor people has little to no legitimacy. This would be akin to someone who has worked primarily in development approving standards in flying safety regulations.

536899_10151201092540583_253215776_n (2).jpg

Clearly, the power of corporations to set the agenda for social issues is huge, and extremely worrying where they lack the expertise to decide how to best these problems. Going one step further, it has been argued, very convincingly might I add, that this exertion of corporate power is a form of hegemony, the dominance of one group in society over another. Under this system, for society to acquire the help of the corporation, they need to alter their views and norms to fit in with those of the corporation.

Perhaps this is where the whole notion of corporate power, or corporate social responsibility, sits so uneasily with me. This model suggests that those who sit on boardrooms dictate what is needed in poor communities. This brings up another interesting discussion. Who represents the poor? Jetstar, Shoes for Planet Earth, or even the organisations that Shoes for Planet Earth work with? Where along the line did the request for second hand shoes come from?

Ultimately, I don’t think we will even know the true answer to this question, except to say that I don’t have much confidence in the legitimacy of Jetstar’s panel to ascertain what is really needed in the communities where shoes are headed.

This brings us back to where we started, and what the weary-eyed Cambodian man was so desperate to convey.

“You have to give the people what they want. Otherwise, there is no point at all”.

Give the people what they want, not what the corporation wants.

Addendum: To Jetstar’s defence, I tweeted and emailed them my concerns over their choice of program to support. They haven’t yet replied to my email. You can read the conversation over Twitter, which ended abruptly, here. I will keep updating this post as I hear from them. I am looking forward to hearing their response.

Resetting, not offsetting, for post growth futures

By Janet Newbury, Sharon Ede and Joshua Nelson

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we have been having some animated conversations regarding the topic of carbon offsetting (aka ‘carbon neutrality’).

On the one hand, we aim to be as transparent as possible about our successes and shortcomings when it comes to our own consumption patterns.  Some individuals and organizations are using the calculation and offsetting of carbon usage as a way of doing that.

On the other hand, we see offsetting as deeply nested within the growth model.  As such, not only do some of us believe the popularity of offsetting will not bring us closer to post growth realities – there seems to be plenty of evidence so far that it will in fact move us farther from them.

Before getting into the details, how about a few stories?

Image credit: kumaravel

Once upon a time …

  1. … there was a guy who was becoming increasingly conscious of his impact on the world that sustains him.  He began to think more deeply about the things he does that damage the delicate balances required for that world to thrive.  He started riding his bike to work.  He chose to holiday closer to home.  He enjoyed growing and preparing local food.  One day, his friend invited him to go on a back-country adventure in a 4×4.  He thought about it, and asked some very deliberate questions about how much fuel might be consumed on such a trip.  He decided to look into ways to offset it, so that he could enjoy the 4×4 trip, knowing he was simultaneously contributing to a good cause.
  2. … there was a vending company that  supplied schools all across the country with sugar- and chemical-laden beverages that come in single use containers.  This company decided to become ‘carbon neutral’ as an innovative way to market itself.  Brilliant!  From that point forward, all of the delivery trucks could proudly display signs that this was a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Business flourished, and all the kids in all the schools still got their sugary drinks.
  3. … there was a transport company, one of the largest in the land, which wanted to be a good role model for other ‘corporate citizens’.  Along came BP’s Global Choice fuel emissions offsetting scheme, and the opportunity just seemed perfect.  Once the transport company signed up for the challenge, its managing director publicly exclaimed: “The more kilometers we travel, the more we help Australia’s environment.”

What does offsetting actually do?

The most common understanding of the answer to this question goes something like this: By purchasing carbon credits, we are investing in activities (such as the planting of trees or adding of renewable energy instead of carbon-energy) which restore the balance of the ecosystem by facilitating the reintegration of the carbon that has been used in the burning of fossil fuels or by removing carbon-emitting that would have be placed without the offset.  So, for instance, if I take a flight (which burns fossil fuels) I can buy carbon credits (which contribute to the planting of trees) to negate the damage that otherwise would have taken place because of my flight.

However, that’s not actually how it works.

We are, in fact, dealing with two carbon pools: the active carbon pool (which moves among forests, atmosphere, and oceans, and rarely increases or decreases), and the fossil carbon pool (which is locked away in coal, oil, and gas deposits – until extracted, that is).  When fossil fuels are used, carbon is being irreversibly shifted from the fossil to the active carbon pool.

Trees don’t store carbon in the lock-tight manner of the fossil carbon pool: forest fires, timber harvesting, disease, decay, and other processes keep this carbon active. And planting trees is not a benign activity either – not at this rate.  The demand that is now emerging for large-scale tree plantations is being resisted by many who are most effected by the trend.  Indigenous peoples and other communities that rely on forests in areas where these plantations are being developed are facing loss of land, and increased violence and disputes.

Similarly, the ocean, which also acts as carbon sink, can only absorb so much before its ability to keep absorbing increasing amounts of CO2 diminishes. Offset or not, the use of fossil fuels permanently adds otherwise inert carbon into the active pool. To further complicate the issue, the warming-climate fuelled melting of permafrost and release of previously locked up carbon will release yet more significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle.

Add to this fact the likelihood, as demonstrated in the three stories above, that carbon offsetting may actually increase the consumption of fossil fuels, and it becomes clear that rather than being a solution, offsetting is a potential contributor to climate change as well. Take, for example, the fact that several large airlines are now making claims of carbon neutrality, and promoting themselves on that basis. Our carbon emissions continue to raise with increasing speed, regardless of efforts in offsetting.

It is often the communities that are most reliant on the land which are the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change. If these communities suffer from the loss of land that comes with tree plantations used for offsetting and from the emissions that come with the still increasing levels of consumption of fossil fuels, then that means these communities are doubly impacted (while others profit from it, often none the wiser to the reality).

We must also pay attention to the phenomenon that has become known as Jevon’s Paradox: History has shown us that with each technological advance that improves efficiency, consumptions rates have actually increased, not decreased, over time.  From wood, to coal, to fossil fuels, this has proven to be the case.  So for us to suddenly believe that a technological fix such as carbon offsetting will solve the issue of consumption (carbon or otherwise) once and for all, we may be naively turning a blind eye to a fairly predictable truth about ourselves.  And as the stories above indicate, increased consumption on the basis of offsetting is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The familiar language – and practices – of reduction

Of course, we don’t need much imagination to think outside the box of offsetting.  Rather than asking how we can offset what we consume, we can go back to the tried and true practices of reducing our consumption and emissions, and eliminating what we can.

On a systemic level there are some really easy wins if there is the will to pursue them.  For example, what if we no longer permitted or facilitated boomerang trade: the exporting and importing of like goods?

Imagine if this were not longer happening:

  • 5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany
  • 22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
  • 4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
  • 116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction

And what about altering the food production and distribution processes that contribute to the hideous waste of food that is an accepted feature of globalisation?  Or doing away with the rise in disposable plastic products in the name of efficiency and convenience?

These shifts do not require complicated systems of design and distribution, or new technologies yet to be discovered.  They simply require political will which is at the moment directed elsewhere, because of our collective obsession with growth and the belief that it is worth the damages caused by these and other practices.

On a personal level, we can also make deliberate choices about what carbon usage is responsible, and what we might be better off doing without.  Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

This means, of course, that we can’t appease our guilt by offsetting on Sunday morning and consuming again for the rest of the week.  It means we will all face charges of hypocrisy while we fumble towards more gentle ways of living.  And it means being gentle with ourselves and each other as well, knowing that we live in the very conditions we are striving to transcend, and we are all going about it imperfectly.

But with that in mind, it means we can start from wherever we are.  We don’t need a mathematical formula in order to participate in this collective transition.  We just need to try, share our mistakes and successes, and support one another along the way.

This is a cross-post from the Post Growth Institute Blog.

China’s moth-eaten social safety net: who will catch the poorest of the poor? Not corporations.

China is, without a doubt, on a fast track to ‘development’ with an astonishing US$3.2 trillion in foreign reserves. But inequality, particularly rural and urban, is extreme with an estimated 150 million people living below the United Nations poverty line of less than $US1 a day. China’s growing wealth has resulted in multiple international aid agencies (including Australia’s Agency for International Development) pulling out of China. So, who is going to pick up the slack and help support 150 million people living in extreme poverty?

I don’t want to over exaggerate the influence that aid agencies have had on combating poverty in China. The Chinese government has done a remarkable job of lifting millions of people out of poverty and they will not stop achieving this, but 150 million people still living in extreme poverty is a huge number. As with most issues in China, it is the scale that makes the issue so significant.

Since working in CSR in China, I have noticed a further shift towards engaging corporations to contribute to NGOs who work in poverty alleviation. This concerns me for two main reasons.

  1. CSR in China is currently not mature enough to significantly contribute to poverty alleviation and is still often used as a tool to improve companies guanxi 关系 (relationship) with governments.
  2. Unless there is a shift in the way we view capitalism, corporations will never view themselves as part of a social security system.

Corporations in China, both international and domestic, will not fund NGOs or GONGOs (Government Organised Non Government Organisations) to the extent that is needed to support the poorest of the poor. This is not to say that companies do not engage in successful community investment, they do, but it is by no means at the level necessary to significantly contribute to poverty alleviation. At this stage, corporations can do more to alleviate poverty by focusing on improving their internal supply chains and employee working conditions.

International aid agencies in China have worked with (and therefore supported) domestic NGOs. Civil society in China, or the lack of it, is a real problem. Civil society, including community organisations and NGOs, has the potential to play a huge role in poverty alleviation. However, local NGOs are getting little support and now that aid agencies are leaving the situation for some is dire. I have spoken to a number of NGOs in China who are desperate to engage companies under the guise of CSR to fund their organisations. One of these NGOs was supported by an international aid agency that has now, in an official capacity, pulled out of China. It is my feeling that unless you are an international NGO or a GONGO in China, you are going to struggle to get support under the guise of Corporate Social Responsibility.

So, who will provide enough support to domestic civil society that in turn support the most disadvantaged and poor?

Well, in my opinion, it will not be the CSR departments of local and international corporations. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the government. The Chinese government has the money but still lacks the capacity and infrastructure to develop a social safety net that will support those living in extreme poverty. The issue around the government not supporting NGOs from a political perspective is also a contributing issue. The domestic philanthropy sector is rich (and making some progress) but riddled with challenges ranging from weak laws and regulations to outlandish corruption. China may get there in the end, but between now and then, the holes in the social security system are here to stay.

This is a cross-post with Emily’s own blog.

CSR: Causing Some Reservations. A response to the Aid Blog Forum

By Emily D’Ath, Weh Yeoh & Brendan Rigby

This is a joint post in response to the first discussion for the ‘The Aid Blog Forum‘; an initiative started by J. at Tales from the Hood.

The first topic is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Emily, Weh and Brendan present each of their responses to the guiding questions for this discussion. Join in!


How should we think about CSR?

Emily – Firstly, there needs to be a clear delineation between CSR and what is called ‘community investment’. Community investment is basically a more sophisticated and structured type of philanthropy. It is through community investment that most NGOs will interact with the private sector. Without delving too far into the depths of the definition debate around CSR:

CSR involves the recognition by private enterprises about the challenges the world is facing in relation to sustainability, both social and environmental. The main aim for a company engaging in CSR is to balance the interest of all stakeholders related to their core business e.g. the environment and shareholders. CSR, in my view, should be voluntary and goes beyond the law.

For an example of a company that is practicing CSR check out Marks & Spencer and their ‘Plan A: Do the Right Thing’.

We need to be clear that most NGOs in the development sector currently, or will, deal with corporate foundations or CSR departments who want to contribute money to the community. Whether or not you agree with this is a personal choice but something NGOs need to think about. Do you want to take money from a company that does not have the best ethical standards in other areas of their business?

Brendan – We need to think more broadly and inclusively about CSR. The biggest concern I have about CSR is the that fact that it largely operates within the traditional business model, but almost as a separate entity. An afterthought. Another avenue for raising a company’s profile, albeit under an altruistic banner. For CSR to evolve into a more holistic practice, we really need to unpack the underlying concept of CSR. That is, sustainability. What does sustainability mean to different actors? To business? To communities? To government? Currently, the ‘business as usual’ mantra still dominants many notions of sustainability. Sustainability has been co-opted into the business of growth, expansion, and the bottom line. However, we need to understand and enact the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of sustainability and ensure that CSR be about future generations, not just our own.

What existing practices or ways of thinking about CSR should be stopped or change? Be specific.

Emily – CSR is not philanthropy. Particularly in Asia, CSR is still viewed in terms of simply donating money. In China, it can even involve donating money to local government officials. As mentioned previously, CSR should be systematically changing the way businesses work to become more sustainable. In an ideal world we would not have CSR departments, as sustainability would be integrated into every aspect of how a business operates.

Brendan – I agree with Emily, and would go further to say that sustainability cannot be thought of as ‘sustainability'; as this separate entity that we are required to consider. Rather, it should be so deeply embedded in our thinking and our lives that it does not need articulation. To point where business just is sustainable. Food production just is sustainable. We do not try to be sustainable, we just are sustainable.

Weh – I agree that the partnership between NGO and private enterprise is inevitable. But I think the most important part about this is thinking about expertise, and it’s important that private enterprise is able to release control of situations and rely on the expertise of NGO partners. I’m thinking about this in the context of Australian politics, where, under people such as the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, no one is an expert anymore. A scientist disagrees with my world view on science – screw him, I’m going to discredit him. An economist thinks my direct action plan is too expensive – screw him, I’ll discredit him too!

Along these same lines is the idea that because private enterprise is funding a lot of “charitable” activity, and not government, we are now coming to the situation where we’re using a non-democratic way of deciding which of community’s problems are being solved. By comparison, when government decides which problems are to be solved, at least we have some control over that, in that we democratically elect them. However, nobody democratically elects private enterprise, so what right do they have to pick and choose which of society’s problems deserve attention? The only way to get around this problem, is again, to consider the question of expertise. In deciding which areas need the greatest attention, the expertise has to come from the community, not from the boardroom. If, and only if, private enterprise can do this, can CSR be effective. (Yet I personally doubt it).

Finally, the existence of CSR should not, I think, absolve the government of it’s responsibility to continue to fund development work. Rather, CSR should be an addition, a bonus if you like.

Brendan – Specifically, CSR and notions of sustainability have to be embedded in education. And, not just higher education, but right down to primary schooling. Sustainability is a concept that crosses boundaries and disciplines, encourages creativity and new ways of thinking. It can find its expression in art, business, economics, geography, science, history, etc. This is not a new idea, but one that needs to see greater adoption in education systems around the world. The upcoming Rio+20 would provide a great platform to push such an agenda.

What principles should guide NGO marketing and corporate relations departments as they engage with counterparts in the corporate CSR world to consider partnerships and opportunities for programs in the field?

Emily –

  • Partnerships should be mutually beneficial otherwise it can be hard to justify to both parties why they should renew or engage in ongoing support for an initiative.
  • Partnerships should be 3-5 years, to ensure both parties are committed and programs can have real medium to long-term impacts.
  • Programs need to have a strong monitoring and evaluation system in place, to ensure accountability and feasibility for both parties.
  • Do due diligence about potential partners before entering an agreement. Be clear about what your expectations are and make sure you are comfortable with a company’s expectations. Don’t assume the only reason a company wants to engage with you is for PR or marketing purposes. Private companies aren’t fundamentally immoral but amoral. In fact some of the most committed environmentalist I have met work in executive roles for private companies.

Weh –

  • At the risk of harping on about one point, expertise is the key. We need to think about what private enterprise can bring to NGOs, and money is not the only thing. We need to think outside the box about what private enterprise is good at, and then use these skills. One example I can think of is an NGO that engaged corporate types to voluntarily clean out their office, organise files, stack shelves and the like. When it came down to analysing what these people did on a day to day basis, it turned out that they were from the marketing team of their company. A far better use of resources would be to use their skills to create a marketing campaign for this NGO, as this was something that the NGO lacked experience in. I would much rather see NGOs using resources from the private sector wisely, instead of only looking to that sector for funding, which can often come with stipulations and rules that make using the funding impractical or tiresome.

Why isn’t Australian mining in Mali more transparent on tax?

Development in African countries can be supported through a simple measure, asking Australian mining companies to publish what they pay in tax to foreign governments. Why is this not happening?

AAP Image/Miles Godrey

Austinmer Beach car park was full, and cars had started to park across driveways and on footpaths. A crowd was slowly gathering on the beach, and despite the cold, a warmth exuded as people chatted excitedly in anticipation of the day’s stunt. It was an unusual sight for a winter’s morning, 3000 people with no intention of going for a swim. The community had gathered on Sydney’s south coast to protest the approval of coal seam mining and were pleasantly surprised when an aerial photograph of their human formation made the front page of the Illawarra Mercury the next morning: ‘Stop Coal Seam Mining’.

Looking across the Indian Ocean, communities in Africa are also reacting to the impact of mining. Australian mining companies have already invested more than $20 billion in mining projects across the  African continent. According to Mr Joel Negin, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney:

“These are not just countries where Australia has a deep engagement, like South Africa or Kenya, but it is in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Angola. Places where Australia’s aid presence is very small or non existent”.

The Australian government is trying to keep pace. It has increased diplomatic relations to 53 countries from 41 in the year 2000, and its aid budget to the continent has increased from $86 million in 2006, to $275 million in 2011. “Africa could be on the brink of an economic take off,” said Kevin Rudd, in a speech to visiting African dignitaries in Sydney. The Foreign Minister spoke about the mining boom and Australia’s growing aid presence at a forum on the Australia-Africa relationship. The visiting Minister for Mines from Mali, Mr Amadou Cisse, reminded Rudd, who would and would not be benefiting from the boom.

“For a long time we were the milking cow of other countries. Now our eyes are open to it.”

And there is a feeling that this boom is going to be different. African leaders have developed ‘Africa Mining Vision 2050‘ for creating no less than:

“A sustainable and well-governed mining sector that effectively garners and deploys resource rents and that is safe, healthy, gender & ethnically inclusive, environmentally friendly, socially responsible and appreciated by surrounding communities.”

The relationship between mining and development is complex. As the civil society movement on Sydney’s south coast is demonstrating, the revenue mining raises is not always the primary concern for communities. But in the absence of a strong civil society holding government to account, Australians can still rely on a structured bureaucracy, protecting Native Title, the environment and communities from at least some of mining’s negative impacts. African countries might not be so lucky – Mali provides an example.

Six Australian companies are currently operating in the land locked West African country, contributing vital foreign investment to a country with few export industries. The government of Mali reformed its mineral code in 1991 to attract more foreign investment and has since become Africa’s third largest producer of gold. Despite this increase in investment and the resulting exports, after twenty years Mali ranks a dismal 160 of 169 on the Human Development Index.

Image credit: Philippe Rekacewicz at Le Monde Diplomatique

What are Australia’s responsibilities in monitoring the contribution of these six companies to the sustainable development of Mali? Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Mali government and in his recent visit to Australia, the Minister for Mines recognised their failings and reached out for support for a School for Mining to build capacity in their resource sector.

In the meantime, what role does Australia have? Officially: none. Companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange are required to report on possible impacts on the share price, but anything beyond that is voluntary disclosure. Whilst the industry is working towards creating benchmarks for corporate social responsibility (CSR) guidelines, these guidelines are neither enforceable nor is there evidence that social programmes delivered under CSR are providing long term benefits to communities.

According to Mr Negin, some social programmes as delivered by mining companies “provide nominal benefit to the communities surrounding the mine, and often cause tension with neighbouring regions who have failed to benefit at at all.” Chairman of the Australia African Industry Group Chairman, Rick Yeates agreed that more could be done. “Social programmes are not our core business. We focus on corporate and operations functions, not the social”.

AusAID has stepped into a supporting role, bringing government mining officials to Australian Universities, to attend short courses, aimed at strengthening governance structures and their capacity to manage  resources sustainably and equitably. However, it is not just an issue of government’s capacity. Mr Negin highlights, “If the Australian government struggles to get as significant a portion of the mining revenues that it wants, it is obviously going to be difficult when African governments have less leverage in dealing with the mining companies.”

Presently, Australian companies come to individual agreements with African governments with very little public disclosure. A common practice is for companies to make minor investments in development projects in lieu of fair and equitable tax payments.

Jubilee Australia is an Australian NGO that advocates for economic policies and structures that promote  equitable and sustainable use of resources. National Director Adele Webb believes a crucial leverage point for more responsible investment is transparency of tax payments.

“Community development provided by companies is negligible compared with the massive economic transformation required to kickstart sustainable development in most African countries. If Australian investments in extractive industry projects are to translate into future development for the countries of Africa: transparent and equitable mining tax laws and the re-distribution of this revenue is of paramount importance”.

To promote fair tax, the United States recently passed the Dodd-Frank Act requiring oil, gas and mining companies to publish what they pay in tax to foreign governments. This gives communities the information to combat corruption and to demand government accountability for responsible resource use. Stephen Conroy laid out the Australian Government’s position on the Dodd-Frank Act in Parliament, “we do not consider initiatives such as the Dodd-Frank Act to demonstrably reduce corruption”.

This view is completely unfounded. Ms Webb contests the government’s position.

“There is ample evidence to support the claim that transparency of payments to governments does reduce corruption. There is no demonstrable evidence yet as Dodd-Frank has yet to be implemented”.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is one such global movement seeking greater transparency in the industry. 18 African countries comply with the EITI’s principles for the full publication of company payments and government revenues from oil, gas and mining. Despite some suggestions from government that it may be adopted, Australia is yet to become an implementing member. Oxfam’s Mining Ombudsman reports that Australia’s adoption of the standard, as a resource rich country, will assist the principles of transparency and EITI to become a global norm. This is a simple strategy for supporting development in Africa, demand our government become an implementing member of the EITI and review its position on legislation such as the Dodd-Frank Act.

And as the protest on the south coast demonstrates, there is already an appetite for greater transparency in resource management, but it remains to be seen if the government will heed the call.

Human rights: A no-go zone for corporates?

In most corporate boardrooms, if you suggest focusing on human rights as a community investment strategy don’t be surprised if you are met with deathly silence or an uncomfortable shuffling of papers. But, if you push the common path of education, the environment and youth, you will most likely have instant buy-in.

Community investment is the philanthropic arm of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and goes beyond internal CSR strategy and CSR reporting. The aim of community investment is to support and ‘invest’ in the communities that support a business (check out MTV Exit, MTV Asia’s anti human trafficking program in collaboration with USAID). Companies that pursue genuine community investment are doing so because they want to, and because they see benefit in doing so. However there seems to be a limited number of companies that engage in human rights as part of their community investment.

On a personal level, most of us are shocked by human rights abuses of any kind but particularly, for example, the trafficking of children or slave labour. So, why do most companies freeze like a deer in headlights when it comes to including these issues in community investment?

From my perspective the lack of engagement with human rights in community investment has to do with, among others, two things:

  • It is more to do with a lack of know-how to navigate the complexity of human rights advocacy than it has to do with lack of empathy.

For example, if a shoe company sourcing from China wanted to focus on slave labour, but has heard reports of local Chinese officials protecting sweatshops, could the company’s business relationship in China be affected? How do you deal with the cultural, political and development nuances that feed into human rights abuses, such as rapid industrialisation, loss of land and poverty? In this instance, companies need to partner with local or regional organisations that deal with slave labour on a daily basis. This way they have access to experts who know the local environment and can work to develop risk averse strategies and campaigns against slave labour in China.

  • There is a perspective that governments and international law should protect human rights, not companies and that human rights are bigger than CSR or community investment. I disagree. The same argument could be made for the environment, education or any other development issue but there is a plethora of community investment projects focusing on these issues, and human rights should be included.

There is no denying that human rights are an extremely complex, sensitive and globalised issue and any community investment in the area needs to be approached with diplomacy. But throwing human rights in the ‘too hard basket’ is not very socially responsible.

Here are some suggestions for companies wanting to include human rights in their CSR agenda:

  1. Start globally. Openly voicing a company’s concern about human rights abuses sends a strong message and is a step in the right direction.
  2. Work locally. Work with trusted partners who specialise in human rights to develop effective risk averse programs that help navigate the local complexities of human rights.
  3. Focus on key and specific issues and be clear on how your company can contribute.  No one can solve the myriad of human rights issues, but focused initiatives can make a difference.
  4. Be bold and break the silence. Consumers are looking for reasons to be loyal.


Emily is an experienced project manager with practical and research experience in sustainable development and corporate social responsibility. She has worked in Australia, China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Emily currently lives and works in China.

The opinions Emily expresses on this blog are her own and do not reflect those of her employers or clients. This is a cross-post with Emily’s own blog.


Our favourite links for the week:

Who is the ‘Development industry’ – Tobias Denskus at Aidnography

Providing a home to the neglected mentally illIndia News: Mental Health

What Do Donors Discriminate On? Evidence From Kiva.org – Preliminary research paper presented at the 2nd European Research Conference on Microfinance, June 16-18 2011.

The Places We Live – Jonas Bendiksen and Magnun Photos

The myth of temporary protection visas – Sue Hoffman, The Drum

Buy a half-gallon of sugar water at KFC, give a dollar to diabetes research – Jess Zimmerman, Grist

Happiness as Development – Charles Kenny, Center for Global Development

Hardly one bad Apple spoiling the bunch

A case study on the development of Chinese occupational health and safety law

Apple again hit the news in late February over poor working conditions in its supply chain. At least 137 workers in an assembly plant in Suzhou, China, which supplies Apple with touch screens, have nerve damage from exposure to n-hexane. And the reports can’t help but mention Apple’s last supply chain scandal, when a plague of suicides hit its supplier Foxconn’s factory in 2010. But from my perspective, working in a labour law legal aid and research centre in Beijing, this recent story isn’t bad news.

If anything, it’s a relief to hear of one international corporation bothering to audit safety conditions – goodness knows the government inspections do little to improve occupational health and safety here. And this recent Apple saga provides an example of an employer complying with legal obligations to purchase workplace injury insurance for workers. It may as well be the only complying employer, given the tide of uninsured, injured workers my colleagues have to battle for every day in court!

Sure, Apple is ultimately responsible, morally, for the harm to these 137 workers. But that doesn’t absolve the supplier corporation, who in this recent case is Wintek. Wintek shoulders its own moral obligations, and has failed to meet them. It also looks to have failed to meet its legal obligations to workers. And the media storm barely points the finger at the other internationally recognised brands using this same factory. They don’t seem to have responded to the lax safety in the way Apple has. (Even if it is 2 years late: the injuries first came to light in 2009 and workers conducted a strike earlier in 2010 but there was no response from Apple or Wintek, according to Hong Kong group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, as reported in the New York Times ). Cnet News quotes Apple, saying, “40 percent of the suppliers audited said Apple was the first company to ever have audited their facilities”, despite the fact that many large consumer electronic producers share these suppliers.

A legal aid lawyer talks to a client about a workplace injury (N.B. not sustained at Apple's supplier factory)

Nokia certainly hasn’t made itself accountable to consumers over supply chain incidents in the way the Apple has with its public, annual supplier responsibility reports. (The BBC names Nokia and HTC as fellow users of Wintek’s Suzhou factory.) This is despite Nokia claiming it, as a responsible a corporate player, sends assessors to most of its supplier factories.

Which brings us to the role of Chinese regulations. We shouldn’t assume supply chain safety will be regulated effectively by big-name, international chain heads alone. The workers in a supply chain are employed by any number of intermediate companies flying right under the radar, like Wintek. The Wintek’s of the world have no Western consumer-base breathing down their necks. And they are operating internationally, so they don’t have a home government scrutinizing their workplaces either. The country they operate in has a huge role to play in using its laws to ensure safe workplaces. I anticipate scoffing readers here: as if China has workplace safety legislation. But it does. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases (call it the ‘Law on Occupational Diseases’) has been in force since 2002. Let’s walk through Wintek’s possible contraventions.

Legal Breaches

Workers at Wintek’s factory say they had masks and protective glasses. This at least partially fulfills an obligation under the Law on Occupational Diseases to “take measures to ensure that the workers receive occupational health protection” (art. 4).  Wintek’s failing was poor ventilation: when it upgraded from alcohol to n-hexane for screen cleaning, it didn’t upgrade the ventilation. N-hexane is vastly more noxious than alcohol when inhaled. Given art. 5 of the same statute says the employer shall “bear responsibility for the occupational disease hazards produced in the unit”, Wintek is liable, regardless of the prudent provision of goggles and masks, because the hazard was still produced.

Or another company – unnamed, unknown – is liable.

The Law on Occupation Disease binds the employer only. Wintek may contract out to a local company to employ the Chinese workers. Yet another link in the supply chain. Wintek is certainly acting as though it accepts its position as employer, but details available publically don’t pinpoint the exact corporation employing the poisoned workers. In fact, most media reporting discusses Apple as if it were the employer, but it is certainly not.

Finding the correct employer, and proving an employment relationship, are particularly onerous tasks for Chinese workers, especially as liability doesn’t seem carry over with a change of business ownership. To get the official medical certification of a workplace injury (as required for compensation claims), the employee has to prove their employment. But keeping comprehensive business records simply isn’t common in China. Moreover, my colleagues tell me time and again of cases where the employer refuses to provide the documentation even when they do have it. They deny the employment relationship and effectively scuttle workers’ compensation claims. It’s a simple sidestep round legal liability in the march to mercantile success.

Strike two: Wintek didn’t tell workers the new cleaning solution was dangerous. In fact, really dangerous: Jia Jingchuan, one of the technicians, was hospitalised for 8 months with nerve damage caused by the n-hexane exposure. Workers’ n-hexane poisoning symptoms included extreme fatigue (imagine not being able to button up a jacket), intense headaches, dizziness, and numb limbs.

This lack of information is a distinct contravention of the law, even if Wintek itself didn’t realise the harm: “The employer shall know the occupational disease hazards produced by the … materials it employs; if it conceals the fact that … materials produce occupational disease hazards and employs them, it shall bear responsibility for the consequences of the hazards” (art. 29). In this provision, Chinese law-makers are putting an onus on employers to check for possible hazards before using a technology or material, and ensuring that keeping a hazard secret doesn’t assist an employer to escape liability. This is coupled with a worker’s right (under art. 36) to know of hazardous factors, their consequences and necessary precautions.

Whether Wintek (or Apple) think acquiring such knowledge is an unreasonable burden may be a matter for discussion with legislators, but so long as art. 29 stands, being ignorant of the danger of n-hexane is no excuse for Wintek. In any case, Wintek has never suggested that injuries caused by n-hexane were a complete surprise. Apple contends that 300,000 workers and another 6,000 supervisors have been trained in workplace safety in the last two years. Commendable, but it’s problematic if such large scale training still doesn’t create a culture where factory managers bother to check the danger a new chemical presents, or tell workers’ about it. And yet behaving responsibly towards workers’ is not a new idea for Wintek, whose Chairman says it “is committed to providing a safe and just work environment, upholding the rights of its personnel and fulfilling its social responsibilities as a corporate citizen.” Apple pledges to monitor the implementation of corrective actions at Wintek’s factory, but can it work out why a safety-conscious culture isn’t taking root?

Wintek says the workers’ medical costs and some compensation were paid out of work-related injury insurance. This is a pleasant surprise.  In China, the government is the insurer in such arrangements and the employer has a legal obligation to a buy an insurance policy in respect of its workers. A recent survey by Yilian, a Chinese legal aid centre, found 55.9% of surveyed injured workers did not receive their last medical insurance payment, and only 46.8% had work-related injury insurance, despite it being mandatory.  In this regard Wintek is a good example, and justified in touting the insurance pay outs in media stories about the n-hexane poisoning. 1 in 5 injured workers in China has industrial poisoning, according to the Yilian Centre’s Occupational Survey Report 2011 (19.1%, for exacting readers). Do you think 1 in 5 employers are providing adequate insurance for compensation post injury?

Yilian Center holds a press conference to launch the Occupation Survey Report February 2011

If it is Apple’s leverage that caused Wintek to comply with the work-related injury insurance obligations, then this also exemplifies how international brands can better achieve safe supply chain workplaces when armed with specific awareness of local legal obligations: their pressure on suppliers can be targeted, their expectations made clearer.

As for the technician, Mr Jia should have been paid his salary while in hospital, in monthly installments. Such payment is entirely absent from Apple and Wintek’s defence of how workers were treated. It’s fantastic that he received some compensation and medical costs, but his and his dependents’ everyday costs need to be funded too, and that’s what these regulations are for. The Yilian Centre’s Occupational Survey Report 2011 reveals that the typical injured worker is male, in his 30s, has migrated from elsewhere in China for mining or manufacturing  work, and was remitting wages to dependents in rural China.  Thus, the chances are Mr Jia’s salary supported a number of people and, after covering medical costs, the compensation payment won’t stretch far enough.

Art. 50 obliges Wintek to reassign these workers with occupational injuries, and to make proper arrangements for their work. Instead, reports say Wintek pressured the workers to resign and accept cash settlements. The terms of these cash settlements reputedly release Wintek from future liabilities. It is in this regard that Wintek’s response (and Apple’s) seemed particularly callow. Getting a liability release as part of a dispute settlement is hardly a new trick, but these workers are particularly vulnerable to being done over in the deal. Wintek denied these claims to the NY Times. The same paper also reported that signing a release is no longer being put to workers as an essential part of their resignation. Hopefully, this is true. Wintek would be sailing close to the wind in forcing workers to resign. Nevertheless, I doubt the workers would litigate under this provision to return to their jobs, given the costs, exhaustion and uncertainty.

And what of the ongoing health effects for Mr Jia and his coworkers? N-hexane poisoning doesn’t go away. The Telegraph quotes a worker, Guo Ruiqiang, saying  “We are unable to cope with the medical costs of treatment in the future” and notes his fresh symptoms. Chinese law specifically deals with such recrudescence: Reg. 38 states that “where a worker who suffered from a work-related injury but recrudesces from the past injury, and is confirmed to be in need of cure, he shall enjoy the treatment of work-related injuries provided for in Articles 30, 32 and 33” (those regulations entail payment from the work-related injury insurance fund and some salary continuance while off work).  So if Wintek and Apple continue their (relatively new) responsible response, future medical costs should not be a concern for the injured workers. But it might be helpful if they knew this! A reaction like Guo’s certainly suggests there is little faith down in Suzhou that Wintek and the government insurance fund will be supportive if workers return with fresh n-hexane poisoning symptoms.

Entirely new poisoning cases are unlikely as the use of n-hexane at Wintek’s factory ceased. In this regard, the law has been obeyed. If Wintek fails to make rectification after a government slap on the wrist, only then will it be fined – up to RMB200,000 (US$30,400), the retail cost of 133 basic i-Touches. As Apple is not the employer, it is unlikely to be fined at all.

Current Law Reform

The National People’s Congress has “Occupational Disease Prevention Law” slated for its law reform program for 2010-2012. In August 2010, China’s  State Council Legislative Affairs Office released to the public the draft amendments to this legislation. At the time of writing, the Chinese legislature has just met (the annual National People’s Congress, alongside the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). This was evidenced, among other events, by a reinforcing of the Great Firewall and immense difficulties accessing email and social network accounts. The outcome is that further modifications to occupational disease prevention laws are scheduled for this year, but will there be progress or simply change? What this Apple case shows is that even a relatively well-scrutinised supplier and an international brand already under pressure over workplace conditions still achieve only partial compliance with workplace safety laws. Law enforcement needs to be bolstered.

The Yilian Center found increased safety precautions flowed from government safety inspections in only 40.9% of surveyed workers’ workplaces. This is despite health and safety failings, not because only 40.9% needed improved safety. The same survey found a mere 23.3% of respondents had some protective facilities in their workplace, despite the legal obligations on employers.

After decades of rapid development, the grave and large-scale toll on workers’ health is increasingly in the spotlight here in China. Workers and their families are increasingly taking action – legal class action, prohibited industrial action, blogosphere action – to secure compensation from the employers they claim so recklessly disregard their health. High profile government prosecution of employers for endangering workers is yet to come. Perhaps the Winteks of the world will start to feel the heat when Chinese safety law is refined in line with the National People’s Congress’s program, particularly if that reform includes improved enforcement or incentives for change in organisational culture.

Wintek isn’t a brand and so it is not vulnerable to a media maul, but its name is certainly known to its thousands of employees and an increasing Chinese readership. This case shows how the irresponsibility is very much Wintek’s, not just Apple’s. I hope in future we see suppliers held to popular and legal account, not merely the pillorying of Apple and its ilk. It is, as ever, clear that neither suppliers nor international supply chain leaders are willing to improve worker safety on moral grounds alone. China wastes a key way of influencing these companies if it lets safety laws languish unenforced, and shrugs off its responsibility to workers in the process.  Even the existing laws could have prevented this contamination of both workers and brands, if they were followed and upheld. That would keep the doctor away.

Hope for sale

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a powerful article by Delphine Rabet called Corporate Power in Global Governance.  The paper argues that profit alone does not encompass the primary concern for corporate entities.  Even more important is the consolidation of power. Rabet argues that when the quest for power is recognized as a central motivation, then the complex activities of multinational corporations can begin to make sense.

For instance, by 2001, “private flows of capital accounted for 87% of the nearly US$296 billion transferred from richer to poorer countries whereas official development assistance comprised less than 13 percent” (Rabet, p. 5).   Rabet explains that this kind of involvement is precisely what allows foreign firms to not only operate in developing countries (thus gaining access to their markets), but also to be granted certain legal powers (extending well beyond domestic laws) and provide access to labour, resources, and much more.  This in turn secures a kind of hegemony that increases protection for investors (real and potential), thus further contributing to the roles of corporations as powerful political players in terms of global governance.

But in order for such drastic shifts to occur in global power dynamics, corporations must “develop the ideological justification for their political existence” (Rabet, p. 7).  This is where corporate social responsibility (CSR) comes in.  Rabet argues that “CSR contributes to the construction of an ideological system which consolidates the power of particular actors in the international realm” (p. 7).  She suggests that rather than contributing to their stated philanthropic aims, CSR serves (and is intended to serve) the political purposes of corporations in that it confirms “the imperatives to protect the wealth generation processes” by highlighting the central place of free markets in efforts towards positive social change (p. 8, emphasis added).  Indeed, through CSR, corporations even attach themselves symbolically and otherwise to legitimate political actors, including states.  This contributes to the hegemonic shift, leading to extremely unequal power dynamics which can, nonetheless, be experienced by parties on both sides of the relationship as voluntarily entered into.  Therefore, even though developing nations are now increasingly dependent on a smaller and smaller group of very powerful entities in more and more ways, resistance seems to be limited to a soft hush and nearly everyone can sleep at night.

Having read this article, it was impossible to overlook – and not be terrified by – the immense corporate presence at a recent event I attended as a chaperone for a group of high school students.  October 15 was Vancouver’s second We Day – a massive event consisting of motivational speakers (including Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Rick Hansen, to name just a few) and musicians (including Hedley and The Barenaked Ladies).  The arena was full of 18,000 teens from all over the province and beyond, excited to hear how each of them can ‘be the change they want to see’, with two other events of equal size taking place in other Canadian cities.

The energy in the space was undeniable.  And the intentions brought there by teachers, volunteers, presenters, and attendees were surely coming from the right place.  So why did it feel so wrong?

Allow me to paint a picture, and then return to the issue of corporate social responsibility:

We Day took place at the ‘Roger’s Center’ – a huge sports arena bearing the name of a telecommunications company.  Waiting in line outside, the kids danced to beats being pumped from the promotional tent of a radio station.  Once through the doors, we walked past opportunities to win free stuff from Nature’s Gate (a ‘green’ food company) and buy bottled water (the proceeds of which we could be assured were contributing to a good cause).  Once past the T-shirt sales, we made it in to our seats to be greeted by a (reusable) bag of free stuff including coupons for Telus, Nature’s Gate, Me to We promotional material, a book, and a few other items.  Then we sat down, watching Telus, CTV, and Omers Worldwide advertisements slide across the screens in front of us as we waited.

When the show finally began, I had some difficulty discerning the invited speakers from the corporate representatives.  Spokespeople from companies such as The Vancouver Sun and The Keg Steakhouse and Bar spoke passionately to their captive young audience about the good their businesses are doing for the world’s least privileged citizens.  Those companies that weren’t represented in person aired slick, loud adverstisements, introduced by Entertainment Tonight’s Ben Mulroney: “Now let’s watch this video about how Telus believes in the power of young people to change the world”, met with ear-piercing applause.  Aviva Insurance put forth a challenge to all 18,000 students to enter their contest, the prize of which will be a portion of 1,000,000 dollars donated by the company for youth-led initiatives for social change (successfully making Aviva a topic of conversation on the bus ride home). During the lunch break Coke Zero, CTV, Molson Beer, Air Canada, and Disney advertisements encircled the entire arena.

The message was clear:  It’s up to us to change the world.  And with the help of some powerful corporate entities, we can do it.  The necessity for corporate handouts was made evident, despite the mantra, “It’s not a handout … It’s not charity … It’s sustainability” being emphatically repeated by We Day representatives throughout the day[1].

I understand the argument that perhaps we need to use ‘the master’s tools’ in order to get the job done.  And indeed, this may be a legitimate approach at times.  But my argument is that in this case, this is not getting the job done.  In fact, the implications of this kind of initiative direct us away from the stated intentions of freedom, justice, and equality.

Keeping the earlier discussion of the hegemony of corporate power in mind, I’d like to now contextualise this event.  Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children 15 years ago and is the face of Me to We (along with his brother Marc), kicked We Day off by celebrating the accomplishments of Free the Children over the past 15 years: 650 schools have been built in developing countries, 10 villages have been supported through the Adopt-a-village program, over 1,000,000 hours of service have been clocked by Canadian ‘We School’ participants in the last year alone.  Women have been supported to find alternative sources of income, and clean water has been introduced to poor communities.  His message was loud and clear: in the last 15 years, we have taken great strides towards levelling the world’s inequities by contributing to these programs.  The crowd was pumped.

But the truth is otherwise.

Staying within Kielburger’s frame of reference of the last 15 years, Rabet has a slightly different observation, “it is really in the last 15 years that [philanthropic action] seems to have definitely become part of the global corporate landscape … [CSR] has moved from a peripheral and controversial function of the firm … toward a more central and widely accepted one by businesses themselves” (p. 8).

One might wonder why this is not something to be celebrated?  If corporations are taking social responsibility seriously then we can trust that finally the rich are looking out for the poor.  But again, looking within these past 15 years, the means can certainly not be justified by the end alone, because the end is not looking good at all.

According to a study by the Asian Development Bank, the gap between rich and poor in many Asian countries has notably widened from the 1990s to the 2000s, as it has in the US during the same time.  This trend is linked to the fluidity of markets that coincides with economic booms in those areas.  But that is not the only thing that has changed during this time; ecosystems have also become less accessible for citizens.  While this may seem to be a seperate area of concern entirely, there is indeed an important relationship among governance, poverty, and ecosystems.   Earthtrends explains that increasingly limited legal, political, and material access to ecosystems contributes to the vulnerability of the world’s poor.  In this way, governance is directly linked to poverty in that even though ecosystems can effectively guard against the risk factors associated with poverty, the poor are steadily loosing their access (while corporations have more).

For the rural poor in particular, public participation – not private philanthropy – is critical for positive social change.  So, while the World Bank celebrates the fact that the number of people living on $1 a day has decreased in this time frame (admitting the move has been uneven across the board), we would be well advised to take those findings with a grain of salt, as they do not account for inflation, nor do they take into account other measures of health and wellbeing, such as those identified by Earthtrends.

I returned home from Vancouver feeling fearful that the next generation is being duped into believing their power lies within their role as consumers, not citizens.  I admire the passion of the young people who attended the event, and I worry that their good intentions are being harnessed to support the hegemony of corporations, which directly corresponds to increasing global inequities and injustice.  I look at the world in which they live, and lament the fact that this single message of the value of CSR is being delivered to them from every direction.

It is critical that alternatives to this single story are offered, in order to reclaim ‘hope’ and ‘change’ before they become two more catchphrases used to sell what freedoms still remain.

A version of this article is also published at rabble.ca

[1] Importantly, these are not only ‘We Day’ representatives, but spokespeople for ‘Me to We’, a for-profit social enterprise which donates 50% of its proceeds.

A business model of care

I have recently been preoccupied with the fact that regardless of the issue at hand, business interests seem to be privileged above all else.  I am concerned about the implications of this in my own field, and have been thinking about the role metaphor plays in perpetuating this tendancy.  Allow me to explain:

We all use metaphors every day.  They enable us to succinctly draw links from one situation to another, transfer knowledge across contexts, communicate with others, and understand our world. They are crucial for communication.

Although metaphors are often thought to be merely linguistic practices, by reflecting on how war metaphors are evoked (such as ”front line’ work, ‘trouble shoot’ and ‘targets’, and of course the ‘war on terror’) it is evident that more is at play.  By noting the capacity of such expressions to provoke certain kinds of action and stifle others, it quickly becomes apparent that metaphors are more than descriptive.  They can serve to promote certain attitudes and actions (that might not otherwise even be tolerated) and silence others. In this way, metaphors do not only communicate norms, but they also to help establish them.

My current concern is the impact of business metaphors when it comes to social responsibility. A doctor friend recently told me about a disagreement she had with another doctor in which he justified a medical decision on the basis that, ‘after all, the hospital is a business.’

By gradually increasing our use of business and economic metaphors in this way and throughout all aspects of personal and professional life, we now seem to have reached a point in which the metaphor has transformed into a taken-for-granted bottom-line truth. Such metaphors/truths can render actions based on a business logic to be more intelligible, rational, and responsible than other potential actions, as was the case with the doctors, above. Thus, economic metaphors are currently serving much more than linguistic functions.

Consider the following expressions and the various aspects of life in which they surface:
• it’s an investment (in your relationship, in the future)
• that’s how we do business here
• it’s a means to an end
• not on my dime
• we need them to buy into it
• more bang for your buck
• I’m not sold on the idea

Although these ways of making sense of experience and justifying behaviour permeate aspects of life as diverse as environmentalism, love relationships, education, war, and democracy, my particular concern at present is what seems to have become a business model of care.

As a child and youth care researcher and practitioner, I can no longer deceive myself into believing the ‘helping professions’ are driven by altruistic intentions alone. It seems that (in Canada at least), social services have fully embraced a business model of care. That is, while other considerations do make their way into decision-making processes, the ‘bottom line’ is often economic when it comes to which decisions are determined to be the most viable, responsible, ‘accountable’, and thus, favourable.

I am most concerned with this overarching business metaphor that seems to guide helping practices.  By noting some of its implications for social responsibility, action, and change, perhaps space can be made for possibilities other than economically-driven ones to be recognized as viable alternatives.

In the caring professions,  evidence-based practice (EBP) has been touted as the most sure way to attain predictability and control, which are, of course, priorities within any ‘business’.  This shift to EBP has had profound effects on policies and practices. For example, addressing social work in particular, Thyer (2008) promotes EBP based on its ability to measure phenomena, evaluate efficacy, save time, attain grants and credibility, and contribute to professionalization. He asserts that by focusing on concrete, measurable aspects of their work, social workers can learn to “ask answerable questions” (p. 344) making success – and the evaluation of it – possible. Despite the fact that ‘quality of care’ does not appear on this list of assets, the reputation of EBP as the most credible approach to care continues to grow.

In the field of nursing, Walker (2003), on the other hand, critiques the assumption that EBP will result in ‘best’ practice. On the contrary, she is sceptical of movements that are based in a desire for certainty. She fears such an approach is more closely linked to economic rationalism due to limited resources than it is to a commitment to ‘best’ practice. Indeed, Walker fears EBP may limit patient choice, create biases that misrepresent evidence, oversimplify the complexities of care, wrongly interpret averages as norms, and compromise clinical freedom. She urges a commitment to developing alternatives in order to remain critical and informed, thus contributing to the provision of quality care.

Economic rationalism is currently one of the key considerations in human service design and implementation and bureaucratic organization (Foster and Wharf, 2007). However, Callahan and Swift (2007) note that this business model of services has sought “little input from its customers” (p. 158).  Moreover, interventions that are considered to be economically feasible are most often interventions that center the individual.  But when conditions are not taken into consideration, the social injustices at play can be obscured, such as the fact that the families most in need of support are not randomly dispersed. For instance, Aboriginal children, families, and communities face a wide variety of social challenges in Canada (which must be understood in context), and are more likely to be deemed ‘at risk’ than non-Aboriginal Canadians (Armitage and Murray, 2007). Thus, an individual-centred business model can give both practitioners and policy-makers tunnel vision when it comes to the broader forces at play.

It is our responsibility to widen this tunnel vision. And this is relevant on both an interpersonal and international level. Indeed, simply reading the international news with this as our lens can draw attention to the fact that the current state of affairs marginalizes some groups, who then experience perpetual and multiple struggles as a result first of certain social conditions and second of the global refusal to acknowledge those conditions. Violence, displacement, poverty, and further marginalization can then follow (see for example the battle for Congo’s mineral assets). Centring helping interventions only at the immediate and individual level does little to alter unjust conditions. By abandoning the overarching business metaphor for care, however, we can begin to widen our perspective and perhaps begin to see our own complicity in sustaining the hardships we then busy ourselves trying to remedy.

Economic metaphors encourage us to capitalize on unjust power dynamics for individual gain, rather than calling them into question. Once inequities are acknowledged, however, ‘intervening’ on an individual level without addressing those larger conditions feels irresponsible. Perhaps intentional use of metaphors that acknowledge human connectedness can move us beyond such power struggles in order to unearth some potential alternatives.  And there are seeds of such potential being sewn:

Recently I attended a day of training that was unlike most I have experienced. Gerry Oleman, a residential school survivor himself, brought together a group of human service practitioners to discuss the plight of Aboriginal communities in British Columbia, Canada. The group consisted of local social workers, police officers, teachers, nurses, and more. By bringing us together simply to hear his story and have conversations, we moved in an entirely different direction than likely would have been the case if the same group of professionals were problem-solving about a particular individual’s situation. Without said individual, we had nowhere to look but to ourselves, and the relationships among us and within our community. Our interconnectedness and the complexities of the issues under discussion were undeniable. Coming at them from an economic perspective would have made no sense at all. Talk of ‘measurable outcomes’, ‘productivity’, ‘accountability’, or ‘incentives’ would have been unintelligible in such a context. Instead, metaphors of webs, circles, and networks were called to mind as we each set to work imagining how change can occur. This brought about concrete possibilities for solutions to concrete problems, but they were significantly different because such metaphors did not allow us to position ourselves as ‘experts’ preparing to help others to change. Instead, we were discovering what we could do to be differently in our community.

Addressing social hardships with a business model of care simplifies the dynamics at play, locating the onus for change outside of ourselves as participants in these dynamics. On the other hand, contextualizing hardships and recognizing their complexities would profoundly shape the way we imagine and enact positive change – locally or globally – with each of us bearing some responsibility.

While we do indeed need to question the ways we understand and engage in economic activity, we mustn’t stop there. We also need to question the way we allow business models to influence the ways we conceive of and engage in other aspects of life as well.


Armitage, A., & Murray, E.  (2007). Thomas Gove: A commission of inquiry puts children first and proposes community governance and integration of services. In L. Forster & B. Wharf (Eds.), People, politics, and child welfare in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Callahan, M., & Swift, K. (2007). Great expectations and unintended consequences: Risk assessment in child welfare in British Columbia. In L. Forster & B. Wharf (Eds.), People, politics, and child welfare in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Foster, L. & Wharf, B.  (Eds.).  (2007).  People, politics, and child welfare in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Thyer, B. (2008). The quest for Evidence-based practice?: We are all positivists! Research on Social Work Practice, 18(4), 339-345.

Walker, K. (2003). Why Evidence-based practice now?: A polemic. Nursing Inquiry, 10(3), 145-155.