The general perception about the corporate sector in Pakistan is that they are blood-sucking leeches who don’t really care about anything but their own selfish interests (read profits!). You only need to scratch the surface of any conversation and you will find people digging up various dreadful episodes of corporate misdemeanor. From irresponsible advertising to companies exploiting their monopolistic position, to a complete disregard of customer relationship management, the corporate horror stories in Pakistan are aplenty.
That said, the corporate sector in Pakistan has come a long way from its early days of politicized, self-promotional advertising masked as CSR. I give you below my honest take on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) landscape in Pakistan, with its share of shiny unicorns, drooling monsters and blood thirsty vampires.
The Shiny Unicorns:
The interesting thing about the companies in Pakistan is that they have evolved their CSR identity in line with the sociological stance of the country. More and more companies are now focusing on contextually relevant issues and not just a one-size-fits-all solution that comes in a pre-made template from the West. We see Pfizer and PARCO addressing a wide array of social issues and Mobilink coming up with its SMS-based Literacy Initiative. These examples and many more suggest a much wider and locally workable model of CSR.
The government in Pakistan has only shown sporadic support of CSR and sustainability and I believe it is a good thing. As in the case of the Code of Corporate Governance, which SECP launched in 2001, any mandated initiative in Pakistan remains limited to list-ticking and form-filling without any on-the-ground, change oriented work. For CSR to achieve its full potential, we need more companies realizing the business benefits of the approach and adopting it, because it benefits the company AND the community it operates in.
The general perception in the Western world is that the local companies in Pakistan have no awareness about CSR and therefore no impetus to adopt the same. This is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. Admittedly most activities are still mainly philanthropy and a holistic approach to CSR is seldom seen, but areas like employee volunteerism and environmental conservation have become more prominent over the past years. As more and more young people join the workforce, they bring the knowledge, awareness and the motivation to be more ethical and responsible. In locally owned businesses, the leadership is becoming younger too and is challenging the conventional profit oriented mind-set. As CSR matures in the country and companies begin to realize the business case of good CSR practice, it will lead to better, more impactful initiatives.
The Drooling Monsters:
One of the aspects that is responsible for hindering the growth of CSR in the country is the much needed consumer push. The consumer in South Asia is generally quite price sensitive and unless a product presents a clear threat to health and safety, the consumer will favor the more economically viable option. In the current state of energy and political crisis in the country, not many consumers expect the companies to do anything beyond delivering a semi-normal product or service. This perception has not only deterred companies from delivering high quality, but has also made them abandon their CSR programs in favor of more media and PR driven initiatives.
The media is also one of the weaker links in the CSR debate. The almost unhealthy focus on political issues has deterred it from working at its role as a corporate watchdog. We hardly see any news about corporate misdemeanor unless it has political undertones. In a country with an unaware consumer and an unconcerned media, companies can never see CSR as a survival strategy or core business practice; it will always remain a buzz word.
The Blood Sucking Vampires:
One of the biggest issues and the archenemy of good CSR implementation is the socio-cultural complexity of the country. The issues are so complex, varied and often sensitive that companies do not want to tackle them for fear of losing rapport with the people. The problem is that if left unaddressed, these issues can and will impair all the other CSR efforts. Issue like religious intolerance, extremism, gender inequality and sectarianism can impede the growth of any country and Pakistan is no exception. Unless these issues are addressed, it seems pointless to pursue other easier, more palatable areas of concern. What is frightening about this is that as companies continue to do this, we will see that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous circle that creates problems upon problems in layers, with no end in sight.
Another blow to the CSR movement in the country has been the loss of foreign investment over the past few years. For the multinational companies and local companies dealing with foreign partners, the main trigger always came from abroad. Local counterparts were required to engage in CSR and had fixed, often substantial budgets to undertake initiatives in line with the local needs. Unfortunately, this has changed a lot since 9/11 and so has the stance of companies on the CSR agenda in Pakistan.
Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about being a Pakistani. Being positive about the future seems to people like sheer ignorance and you get called unpatriotic for suggesting that we need to do more if we want to see a change. Yes, companies in Pakistan are doing work that nobody expects or even rewards, but it needs to be more strategized, more focussed and more long-term. The civil society and the media need to be more belligerent and responsive to unethical business practices. Teachers need to focus more on ethics and consumers need to be more aware of who they reward. In short, all of us need to do just a tad more in our individual capacities to see a palpable change in the CSR arena.