In the name of advancement
Date: Saturday , March 31, 2007
Though the term 'corporate social responsibility' eludes a strict definition, with different organizations looking at it in different ways, common ground between them suggests that it is "the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development…while improving the quality of life of the local community and society at large."
-According to Lord Holme and Richard Watts of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development
When pests infest crops in the revered land of Rani Laxmibai, farmers canter to the community computer center in their village. The operator plays messiah; he goes to the fields, photographs the plants, uploads them on the internet, seeks advice from agricultural experts, and hands the solution back to the peeved peasants. All of this is powered by Microsoft. The company, under its Project Jyoti initiative, has provided the partner NGO-Development Alternatives in this case-with software and the grants for setting up the center.
Elsewhere in Hyderabad, employees at the company's India Development Center are upbeat about the upcoming Community Week. It's an opportunity to see immediate results; while the software they write takes months to mature, their efforts in teaching underprivileged kids how to use computers brings forth instantaneous and effusive smiles, and therein a sense of fulfillment on the employees' part.
Both are novel examples of a corporate body (in the first case), and its employees (in the second) fulfilling their responsibility towards the society. Except that despite being sheltered under the Microsoft umbrella, both operate blissfully oblivious of each other.
"Project Jyoti is run by the sales department," quips a senior executive from Microsoft's Hyderabad IDC. "It does not come under the corporate social responsibility program," he states.
But Vikas Goswami, Lead-CSR at Microsoft says, "Project Jyoti, alongwith Project Vikas, and Bhasha form the core of our CSR policy." Therein, you realize, lies the larger schism: that despite being called corporate social responsibility, it is not really a responsibility for corporates, and is hardly social. It is more a marketing function.
As part of its India-specific CSR activities, Intel has developed low-cost classmate PCs and community PCs.
Timothy Mcguill, the Community Affairs Manager of Intel worldwide says, "We reached out to the community about their needs, held discussions with government officials and academicians, and then designed the PCs specifically for the target segments." Yet, does the fact that these computers form part of Intel’s product line defeat the purpose of categorizing their development under CSR?
Mcguill says that the PCs will help take IT to the underprivileged; after all isn't CSR all about taking the benefits of the company's core competency to the community at large? Look around and you will realize that most technology companies toe the same line. CSR, for them, is all about 'bridging the digital divide'. For the purpose, almost every company has in place an agenda.
To cite a few, Intel runs the Intel Learn program, aimed at imparting IT skills to students of rural / government schools. IBM has the KidSmart program, whereby they donate Young Explorer units - colorful PCs with pre-loaded software - to various primary schools and Infosys runs the Rural Reach Program, which aims to give rural school children exposure to computers.
According to Prof. D.K. Srivastava of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) though, such initiatives are more of an effort on part of the companies to tap into the potential market.
"CSR is now a recognized business strategy," he says. "Companies implement CSR initiatives in / at markets they wish to target 5-10 years later." Its common sense that today's kids are tomorrow's consumers and more so those from rural areas; the bigger potential market lies there.
"These programs help companies create a good image, and once they enter the market, consumers take to their products readily," he states, while adding that most corporates today are not serious about giving back to the society.
Measure of magnitude
Perhaps lending credence to this thought, the Nasscom Foundation, in its 2005-06 CSR report, states that despite most IT firms having 'very good' corporate social responsibility initiatives, 50 percent of them do not have any mechanism to measure the outcome of their community-specific activities; while another 17 percent refuse to mention anything on the issue.
'For any initiative to be successful and sustainable, its outcome must be measurable', it notes in the same breath. This means that while a lot is being done in the name of advancement, there isn’t a way to measure the real impact.
Also, employee participation must rank high among the measurement parameters; the logic being that all aspirations of 'affirmative action' should first impact the company's employee base, and get them to play a vital role in it. Corporate firms agree too; 26 percent of them feel that employees are the key stakeholders in the CSR ambit.
What then is the role played by the staff engineers in their companies' CSR activities? The question elicits, from many of them, a blank stare. 'What is CSR?' they seem to demand. Among those who happen to know of their firms' community service initiatives, the views are varied.
Mcguill of Intel states that around 75 percent of its employee base is involved in CSR activities.
Ganesh Shankar, Module Lead, Mindtree Consulting, which is known among the IT fraternity for its community related initiatives on the other hand says, "I know Mindtree does a lot, but not many among my peers are involved in the programs."
Sheik Mubarak, a Software Engineer from IBM notes, "We engineers are not really involved in these programs. There are people who work specifically on CSR projects."
Scaling through the schism
The shortcomings in the current approach notwithstanding, activists in the agencies / NGOs in charge of implementing CSR programs on behalf of the organizations opine that something is better than nothing.
"Even if it is part of their business strategy, it is at least helping some people in a small way," says Shobha Sundar of the Spastics Society of India. Various companies like IBM and Mindtree have taken a step ahead by including the differently-abled in their workforce under the CSR practices.
Binoo Shankar, an executive in the CSR forum in CII says, "With India's expertise in the services sector, companies could look at starting rural BPOs under their CSR programs."
Perhaps recognizing opportunity, the Satyam Foundation (CSR arm of Satyam Computer Services) started a health helpline in Andhra Pradesh. The helpline is manned by trained villagers who offer advice on health matters to the callers; on identifying a problem as critical, they forward it to qualified doctors, and revert back to the caller with the remedy.
Dr. Balaji Utla, who heads the Satyam Foundation (incidentally, it won the FICCI award for the best CSR practice in 2005-06), stresses that throwing money at the underprivileged, under whatever project it may be, is not the way to bridge the digital or economic divide.
Notwithstanding the fact that quite a few corporates have been noted for their community service practices, viz. Infosys, for its contribution in healthcare for the poor, TCS and Wipro for developing software to aid adult and primary literacy respectively and IBM for its contribution in the rural education area, most CSR programs have as their primary objective, education. Dr. Utla stresses that CSR, in the coming years, must find ways to reduce poverty.
"Social entrepreneurship is the answer. That should be a part of every company's CSR program," he says. Important for the success of CSR in India is that initiatives launched under it, like the Health Helpline, be made self-sustaining in the long run. It will address the issues of employment and wealth creation.
Central to that, chips in Prof. Srivastava, is that organizations must direct a chunk of their CSR budget to agriculture. "Sectors like FMCG, IT are going great guns in India owing to an ageing Western Society. Once the cycle reverses, jobs will move back. Agriculture alone can sustain," he says.
Whether or not that view holds remains to be seen. What does hold however is that most CSR programs run on a strict disconnect with the ground realities of India. Where poverty, hunger and unemployment rule, bridging the digital divide alone may not suffice. If societal upliftment, as envisioned under CSR, is desired, it must follow a sound strategy.
Some cheer can be drawn from the fact that at the least, CSR has made its entry into corporate boardrooms. There is now a need for direction; the realization must sink in that far more important than imparting IT skills to the underprivileged, as part of CSR, corporates must leverage technology to help better India's banes. And sharing information about the best country-specific CSR practices, on a global level, could be the first incisive step.