8th Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility

Thursday, November 19, 2009

By W. SyCip

THE PAST YEAR AND A HALF HAS NOT BEEN EASY FOR ALL OF US. PRESENT INDICATIONS ARE THAT MOST NATIONS ARE MOVING OUT OF RECESSION, AND WE IN ASIA, WITH THE FAST RECOVERY OF CHINA, ARE DOING BETTER THAN THE WESTERN WORLD. EVEN THE LEADING FINANCIAL INSTITUTION OF CONTINENTAL EUROPE, THE DEUTSCHE BANK, HAS ATTRIBUTED THE GERMAN RECOVERY TO CHINA.

LET ME PRESENT THREE PERSPECTIVES IN TIME. FIRST OF ALL, IT IS IMPORTANT TO TAKE A LONG TERM POINT-OF-VIEW, AND I WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE THAT AT MY AGE, I AM EMINENTLY QUALIFIED TO PRESENT THIS PERSPECTIVE. I HAVE SEEN CRISIS COME AND GO HERE AND IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD OVER MANY DECADES. WHAT IS WORTH REFLECTING ON IS THAT THIS COUNTRY HAS ENCOUNTERED AND SURVIVED AND OCCASIONALLY THRIVED AFTER MANY KINDS OF CRISES—ECONOMIC, POLITICAL AND EVEN ENVIRONMENTAL. MOVING FORWARD, WE HAVE WITNESSED IN THESE PAST FEW MONTHS THE PERFECT STORM OF ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY, TWO TYPHOONS THAT GENERATED HUMAN, SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE, AND A CURRENT POLITICAL SITUATION THAT PROMISES OR THREATENS MAJOR CHANGE WITHIN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS. BUT ALL THESE CONCERNS WILL PASS WITH THE PASSAGE OF TIME.

THE PRECEDING SCENARIO OFFERS TWO LESSONS FOR PRACTITIONERS OF CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY. ONE, THIS CRISIS WILL ABATE. CSR PROGRAMS SHOULD NOT BE UNDULY AND NEGATIVELY INFLUENCED BY THE CURRENT CRISIS TO CUT BUDGETS OR RETHINK CSR. TWO, CSR IS ALL ABOUT PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATION VALUES. AND VALUES ARE NOT TIME-BOUND. CSR IS NOT ABOUT MORE OR LESS MONEY IN ONE YEAR RELATIVE TO ANOTHER YEAR. CSR IS ABOUT AN ENDURING COMMITMENT TO WHAT WE HOLD DEAR—BE IT IMPROVING EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES, ASSISTING MICROFINANCE COMPANIES TO LOWER THE COST OF CREDIT TO LOWER INCOME GROUPS, ENHANCING HEALTH SERVICES PARTICULARLY IN RURAL AREAS, GENERATING QUALITY-JOBS, AND SO ON.

LET ME MOVE ON TO THE NEXT PERSPECTIVE. WHAT SHALL WE DO OVER THE MEDIUM TERM? LET ME AGAIN REACH BACK TO A WELL-WORN BUT VERY APPROPRIATE ANALOGY. NOW IS THE TIME TO BEGIN BUILDING A GOOD HOUSE IN A BAD NEIGHBORHOOD—LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY. CSR EFFORTS CAN SIGNIFICANTLY CONTRIBUTE TO IMPROVING THE DEPRESSED ECONOMIC AND DEVASTATED ENVIRONMENTAL NEIGHBORHOOD THAT SURROUNDS US. COMPANIES CAN UNDERTAKE PROJECTS TO HELP BOTH THEIR EMPLOYEES AND THEIR LARGER COMMUNITY OF STAKEHOLDERS. NOW IS THE TIME TO START, BECAUSE THE OUTCOMES WILL BE SEVERAL MONTHS AND POSSIBLY YEARS IN THE MAKING. I COMMEND MY MANY COLLEAGUES AND SOMEWHAT FEWER CONTEMPORARIES FOR THE ON-GOING EFFORT, TIME, AND MONEY, AND MOST IMPORTANT—PERSEVERANCE THAT THEY AND THEIR CORPORATIONS HAVE UNDERTAKEN AND CONTINUE TO UNDERTAKE. OVER THE MEDIUM TERM, CSR CAN PUT ITS HOUSE IN ORDER AND IN THE PROCESS ACTIVELY ASSIST THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAT IT LIVES AND WORKS IN. CSR IS NOT ONLY ABOUT REBUILDING ONE’S HOUSE BUT ALSO ABOUT TRANSFORMING THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

MOREOVER, IN THE MEDIUM TERM, CSR, TOGETHER WITH ITS COMPLEMENT, CORPORATE GOVERNANCE, HAS A ROLE TO PLAY IN THE POLITICAL ARENA AS WELL. CSR PROJECTS CAN BE DESIGNED TO BUILD OR TO EXPAND A CONCERNED AND ACTIVE CITIZENRY THAT WILL ALSO BECOME A SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE AND RESPONSIVE COMMUNITY. IT MAY BE CONVENIENT AND COMFORTABLE TO CONFINE CSR TO THE ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL NEIGHBORHOOD, AND TO FIGURATIVELY BUILD THE SO-CALLED “CHINESE WALL” BETWEEN CSR AND THE POLITICAL NEIGHBORHOOD THAT SURROUNDS A BUSINESS. SUCH A POSITION MAY ULTIMATELY PROVE UNDESIRABLE AND INDEFENSIBLE. REALISTICALLY, ONE MUST DO WHAT ONE CAN. BUT THIS INJUNCTION APPLIES TO CSR AS A WHOLE. RESOURCES AND OTHER CONSTRAINTS CLEARLY PLACE LIMITS ON A COMPANY’S CSR ACTIVITIES. THESE CONSTRAINTS SHOULD ONLY AFFECT THE SCALE AND DIVERSITY OF CSR PROJECTS—BUT NOT THEIR SCOPE OR SPHERE OF INFLUENCE.

FINALLY, LET ME BRIEFLY RETURN TO THE SHORT-TERM—TO THE IMMEDIATE PAST AND TO THE PRESENT. THE ECONOMIC CRISIS IN THE UNITED STATES THAT OCCURRED SOME MONTHS AGO AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS THAT RECENTLY PASSED DEMONSTRATED THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG LEADERSHIP TO IMPLEMENT DECISIVE ACTION. IN THE UNITED STATES, THERE WAS NO TIME TO VOTE ABOUT WHAT TO DO WITH THE NUMBER OF COMPANIES THAT PUT THE AMERICAN ECONOMY AT SUCH RISK. A FEW KEY INDIVIDUALS AND THEIR INSTITUTIONS, BOTH PUBLIC AND PRIVATE, ACTED SWIFTLY BASED ON INADEQUATE INFORMATION AND WITH LIMITED CONSULTATION. RETROSPECTIVELY, CRITICS SUGGEST THAT TOO MANY RESOURCES WERE BADLY USED. PROSPECTIVELY, IT APPEARS THAT THE AMERICAN ECONOMY WHILE WEAK HAS WEATHERED THE ECONOMIC STORM.

IN THE PHILIPPINES, THE TWO TYPHOONS REQUIRED IMMEDIATE ACTION, AGAIN BASED ON INADEQUATE INFORMATION AND WITH LITTLE OR NO OPPORTUNITY FOR CONSULTATION. AVAILABLE GOVERNMENT RESOURCES WERE INADEQUATE AND AS USUAL, PAST WARNINGS FROM KNOWLEDGEABLE PERSONS LIKE ARCHITECT FELIX PALAFOX, JR. WERE DISREGARDED. I COMMEND THE IMMEDIATE AND DECISIVE INITIATIVES OF INDIVIDUALS AND INSTITUTIONS THOSE WHO ACTED SPONTANEOUSLY FROM A DEEP-ROOTED SENSE OF VALUES AND OF DOING THE RIGHT THING AND ONLY IN HINDSIGHT REALIZED THAT THEIR WORK REPRESENTED THE BEST OF CSR IN ACTION.

THE LESSON THAT SHOULD NOT BE LOST IN THE RECENT TRAGEDY OF LOST LIVES AND HOMES IS THAT STRONG LEADERSHIP GENERATED THE ORGANIZED EFFORTS THAT YIELDED BETTER RESULTS THAN THE FRAGMENTED IF HEROIC AND GENEROUS ACTS OF INDIVIDUALS. WITH RESPECT TO CSR, THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS THAT BUSINESSES AND THEIR ORGANIZATIONS FOLLOW THE LEADER—MOST LIKELY THE CEO OR A MEMBER OF TOP MANAGEMENT MUST “WALK THE TALK” ON CSR BEFORE THE REST OF THE ORGANIZATION FOLLOW. OVER THE MEDIUM TERM THE LEADER’S VALUES ON CSR MUST BE BUILT INTO THE ORGANIZATION THROUGH CONSULTATION AND CONSENSUS. OVER TIME, THE COMBINATION OF LEADERSHIP ALLOWS THE ORGANIZATION TO INCULCATE CSR AS A PERMANENT PART OF ITS VALUES AND CULTURE. THIS PROCESS AND EFFORT BUILDS CSR WITHIN A CORPORATION AND STRENGTHENS THE ORGANIZATION TO RESIST, TO ADAPT AND TO OVERCOME THE PRESSURES OF ANY CRISIS, BECAUSE A CRISIS IS ULTIMATELY A TEMPORARY IF PAINFUL PHENOMENON, BUT VALUES REPRESENT AN ENDURING FOUNDATION.

IN THE PAST WE MAY HAVE RELIED TOO MUCH ON THE “WESTERN” MODEL FOR CSR. BUT I WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT IN A CRISIS, WE SHOULD DISREGARD POLITICS – AND MAYBE THERE IS MUCH WE CAN LEARN FROM CHINA WHERE THE “STIMULUS” PACKAGES FROM GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN MORE EFFECTIVE IN CAUSING ECONOMIC RECOVERY IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR.

MY BEST WISHES GO WITH YOU IN YOUR CONTINUING INITIATIVES TO SUSTAIN CSR WITHIN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS AND NEIGHBORHOOD.

THANK YOU.