We have, by all accounts, had a very ‘socially responsible’ week. On Monday a voluntary UN-backed scheme to promote good corporate practices was launched in Dubai, which will see businesses commit to ten key principles on human rights, the environment and anti-corruption.
And on Wednesday, it was announced that Intel has teamed up with the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation to provide free online training to two million teachers in the Arab World.
It is encouraging that genuine corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives such as these are gathering pace in the region. And technology companies such as Intel have an important part to play in all of this.
Consider the drive for greater ‘digital literacy’ in the region. Intel is not alone in promoting this: Microsoft, for example, launched a similar scheme late last year.
The business case for such schemes is strong. As Intel chairman Craig Barrett explained to the press earlier this week, the more people Intel educates to use computers, the greater the pool of talent it has to recruit from in the future. And, of course, the greater the demand there is for its products.
But as more and more technology CSR programmes launch, one must be wary of the line between charity and corporate spin. For the benevolent language of social responsibility has the habit of seeping into pure profit-making aspects of a business.
Take the drive to build the $100 laptop. What originally started as a charitable initiative by the non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child has turned into a mass-scramble by multinational companies desperate for a share of a potentially very lucrative market. The profit to be made by selling millions of cheap computers to some very poor nations – as well as to well-off consumers in the West – is too good to be missed.
Likewise, part of the marketing spin behind the adoption of 4G wireless broadband is that it has the potential to provide online access to people in poor, remote areas of developing countries. This is a fact that the companies behind such technologies are extremely fond of pointing out.
What is objectionable in these two examples is the way core lines of business are dressed up as quasi-CSR initiatives. In fact, the social benefits involved in the above examples are purely coincidental in the quest for a quick buck.
True CSR schemes, on the other hand, place the social benefits first. There may be an associated profit benefit, but that is not the key factor in decision making.
Companies in the Gulf – whether in the technology sector or otherwise – must consider this when choosing what to flag as having a social remit. If they don’t, they run the risk of giving CSR a bad name.