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Between human rights and CSR

The issue of human rights and corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown to be a source of concern in Nigeria and the region of West Africa. Most companies that operate in Nigeria and West Africa out rightly violate the norms and convention of human rights when it comes to CSR.While belief in the sanctity of human life has ancient precedents in many religions of the world, the idea of human rights, that is, the notion that a human being has a set of inviolable rights simply on grounds of being human, began during the era of renaissance humanism in the early modern period.  On the other hand, analysts believe that the idea of CSR had it background from the days of struggle where court permitted the piano manufacturer to buy an adjoining tract of land to be used for a church, library, and school for its employees. In this case, the court saw ‘improved employee relations’ as a major benefit accruing to the company.

Checks by Daily Times reveal that most companies in Nigeria and across Africa don’t always adhere strictly to the norms and convention of global human rights as it relates to CSR. Further investigation revealed that there are actually three categories of companies involved. They include some Asian transnationals which have little or no respect for human rights or business sustainability principles both in their corporate country of origin as well as in the host country. Another group comprises some (emphasis on some) western multinationals that apply double standards. Which mean, for instance, better employment conditions for their expatriate staff with same qualifications, experience, and productivity level compared with a local employee or when an environmental and waste disposal policies differ between their operations located in Europe or the United States of America and those in Africa. The last category is the large national companies who often do not have any knowledge of CSR and human rights.

Speaking on this issue, Mr. Eustace Onuegbu, President of International Network for Corporate Social Responsibility (INCSR) and the CEO of De Bernards Consulting Ltd said: “as a matter of fact, a number of regulatory agencies in Nigeria do not have any CSR/sustainability programme in place. That means that not only the regulatory agency probably is inefficient but also the companies that are being regulated. We are currently working out an intervention programme for one of such organizations in the maritime sector, hoping that the change of administration will facilitate the process.”

According to him, “As you can see, there was a need to sensitize the corporate community operating in the region, policymakers who are completely at a loss most times on these serious fundamental human rights issues and global best practices in CSR and the public on their rights. To achieve this, I initiated the international conferences on Business and Human Rights in Africa, which is just the start of a sustained sensitization programme aimed at making Africa a better place to live and work. In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

He stated that, “there are three different schools of thought on this matter – those who believe that CSR and Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) are two separate processes within an organization, others who consider HRDD as an integral part of CSR and the last group that believes that HRDD is a higher level business risk assessment process. I need to clarify a few things here. The fact of the matter is that CSR has evolved over the years to include national and international human rights norms. The meaning and value of CSR differ in various contexts, depending on local factors including culture, environmental conditions, and the legal framework but the basics remain the same anywhere in the world. In the past, CSR was only understood to mean philanthropy where an organization, irrespective of how it makes its profit, would give some back to the social as I earlier explained. This is what most organizations still practice in Africa including the emerging markets like Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya – this is very unfortunate.”

 

In another development, while reacting on CSR resolving issues between host communities and organizations, the convener of the coalition against corrupt practice, Comrade Debo Adeniran said:

“There is a difference between conducting a site CSR audit and conducting a business impact assessment for an organization. The site audit checks the employment policies, waste disposal systems, etc. while the business impact assessment actually checks the real impact an organization’s business activities have on the community and other stakeholders. They include the process of acquiring the land being used for a factory, farm and other businesses; employment opportunities for the host community; how the waste being disposed to affect the health of the local community; what are actual and potential effects of gas being flared to the population in terms of health issues and economic loss; does the excess use of the road by suppliers affect or deteriorate the quality of that road or pose other risks in the community?”

 

Also speaking on Organizations and CSR budget in the present economic circumstances, a brand management consultant, Bernard Okhakume told Daily Times that, “It is even more important now that most African economies are struggling to apply a strategic CSR policy in a business. Research has shown that typical small companies can improve their profits by at least 66 percent within five years by embracing smart sustainability strategies. For large companies, that potential profit improvement is 38 per cent. It looks like embracing sustainability opportunities is a no-brainer. As explained earlier, CSR has become not only the “right thing to do” but also the “competitive” thing to do. The business world is awakening to an undeniable reality: our global economy, society, and environment are inextricably aligned. The world of today is a CSR. One cannot possibly avoid this topic whenever referring to the business news: CEOs proclamations of being socially responsible, pursuing sustainable development, behaving ethically, etc. are coming under an umbrella of a globally agreed term – CSR.”

According to him, “companies sourcing their raw materials from Africa like other continents are required to meet international regulations and initiatives to remain in business and often times increase their market share. African businesses need to apply CSR strategies to be able to export their products overseas, attract foreign direct investment (FDI), capture opportunities and avoid risks thereby creating alternative sources of foreign revenue for the region especially a country like Nigeria that is dependent on only one source of foreign revenue. Applying CSR in the agricultural and maritime sector would immediately boost foreign earnings and create jobs.”

 

On how government can ensure that corporate organizations make full disclosure on CSR activities, he pointed out that, “in a country like South Africa, CSR uniquely receives particular attention from a legislative point of view under Section 72(4) of the Companies Act. Regulation 43 also requires that all listed public companies, every state-owned company and any other company that has in any two of the previous five years scored above 500 points in terms of Regulation 26(2), must appoint a social and ethics committee. So a lot has been done in this direction in South Africa and that’s why we find it a lot easier to work with organizations there.”
According to him, in a country like Nigeria, the only way is to ensure compliance of existing legislations and introduce others in line with global best practices such as in South Africa, which will provide for things like the annual CSR assessments. Through such assessments, organizations will be able to find out what risks their activities may pose to their stakeholders. The government will then ensure that they act to mitigate against such risks. Companies, on the other hand, will save costs on litigation, absenteeism, labour issues, sanctions, etc. thereby improving productivity and being able to compete in the global marketplace.
“Also, all regulatory agencies such as the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, the Nigerian Airports Authority, among others, should require their members and suppliers to meet global best practices on CSR considering the time it takes in this part of the world to amend the legislations and the politics involved. I, however, have my reservation on the proposed CSR Bill especially with regards to non-inclusion of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as one of the reference points for the proposed CSR Commission. Anyway, according to the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Prof. Bem Angwe, is presently developing a national action plan on business and human rights which I think should complement the bill, hoping that process is expedited.”

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