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Posted in Books by Rrishi on 7 August 2008

Civil society nag Arun Maira on corporate social responsibility

Transforming Capitalism: Business Leadership to Improve the World for Everyone
Arun Maira
Nimby Books
pp 216

CSR is now as familiar as VIP, GDP or EMI. Every corporate talks about corporate social responsibility, and most do CSR one way or another. It’s good for the world, they say, and what’s good for the world is good for us.

Yet, with few exceptions, work defined as CSR usually sits well outside the core areas of the company’s work, whether manufacturing or services. Sponsoring a computer centre for slumdwellers, a mobile rural clinic or even an art exhibition is CSR.

Such efforts do bring social benefits, but scarcely change the way the company does business. Typically CSR is run by a separate division, which dispenses the company’s do-gooding budget. Corporate leaders are happy to see their name associated with good works, and there are certain advantages to be drawn from being approved of by the media. CSR is a useful counterfoil to imputations of greed and carelessness with the environment.

Not enough, says Arun Maira in this book: it’s time to adjust the paradigm to the new reality. There are too many of us, exerting too great a pressure on the Earth. Needs have multiplied, and governments are totally out of their depth; they were not designed to deal with everything on their plate today. That’s why there are more and more NGOs, and an ever-more active, and combative, civil society.

Maira is India chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, and has spent many years in the Tata group and as a consultant in the USA. He has written books with such titles as Shaping the Future, Remaking India and Discordant Democrats. He writes frequently in the business press and journals, and in a monthly called Civil Soviety, the publisher of which, Umesh Anand, asked him to write this book.

Anand explains why, in his Publisher’s Note: “An industry leader was needed so that bandwidth was immediately established and as little as possible was lost in the crackle of transmission.” This is tiresome management-speak, but shows that the target audience is business leaders. Anand goes on: “[It] is a book designed to throw up questions, make managers think, and set them off on journeys of discovery.”

Maira delivers on this remit, at least. His thesis (but it is hardly original) is that corporates can no longer believe that “the business of business is only business”, and that alongside their responsibility to shareholders and customers is their responsibility to citizens. Corporates should work with three bottom lines in mind: profit of course, but also “people” and “planet”.

He looks at recent controversies such as Pepsi’s pesticides-and-groundwater trials, Tata’s abortive effort in Singur, and the trouble over TRIPs (especially drug patents). Then he examines how corporations (via their leaders) relate to society with hypothetical examples of leadership in the face of civil-society challenge — typically, charges of industrial pollution. Next, Maira hints at the change that is needed, extolling public-private-people partnerships. Finally, he weighs the current development paradigm and finds it wanting.

So far so good. Yet every essay reads like no more than an extended introduction to the topic — useful for understanding, certainly, but lacking conclusion. Typical phrases from closing paragraphs: “It is high time we question the value of…”, “we must seek harmony” and “a better idea is needed”. The least impressive: “My hope is that India will… create an inclusive model for development, integrating the country’s social, economic, and political development.” We hope so too, Mr Maira.

After his clear-headed analyses, in which Maira is able to sift the salient points from the media clutter, a ray of actionable insight would have been the yeast in the dough. Still, there’s something here to chew on.

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