CSR and Civic Education in Nigeria

December 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Kenneth Amaeshi

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has gradually become a buzz word in the Nigerian private sector landscape. This is obviously a good sign. CSR is also seemingly becoming more sophisticated, shifting away, albeit sluggishly, from its overly philanthropic outlook of the recent past. In my over 10 year experience of researching and studying the evolution of CSR practice in Nigeria, I think there is some reasonable progress in this area. At least the practice is now beginning to attract the right attention in organizations and is being professionalised. The financial services sector, for instance, has gone a step further in initiating an industry level programme on sustainable banking. These are all positive signals.

However, the more sophisticated it becomes, the more shadowy it gets through its pursuit of seemingly exotic and foreign tastes whilst ignoring the basic things. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise corruption, bad governance, and unenlightened followership as the main problems of contemporary Nigeria. Some of the challenges currently borne by the private sector through philanthropic activities – e.g. provision of health care, portable water, greening of the environment, poverty alleviation, et cetera – are all clear symptoms of a failed government. Tackling these symptoms without carefully addressing their root causes will only perpetually lock CSR into philanthropy.

In my opinion, the best CSR in Nigeria should focus on addressing the problems of corruption and bad governance in the country. Often times, corruption and bad governance are fruits of ignorance and poor education. One way of fighting corruption and bad governance is through civic education for value re-orientation. The average man on the street is aware that Nigerians need to change their orientation, but the question has always been HOW?

Firms can engage with anti-corruption and promotion of good governance in many different ways. They may decide to have CSR programmes in these areas targeting their different external stakeholders – particularly their customers, the government, and local communities. They can also empower and collaborate with the civil society and international institutions to champion these changes in society.

Another option is for them to look inwards and focus internally on their employees and their organizational culture. In this regard, CSR becomes a business philosophy and a way of life. Some firms are beginning to play in this space – i.e. institutionalising employee oriented CSR activities, for example, employee volunteering, protection and promotion of human rights and equality in the workplace, et cetera. Some have also embedded these in their human resources management functions through policies and routines. These are all positive steps, but more needs to be done.

It is embarrassingly tragic that corruption has become our second nature. One can also appreciate that some of the private sector players are products of the corrupt system. Some may even be sustained by the same corruption. To that extent therefore, they become beneficiaries of the status quo and do all within their reach and means to ensure the status quo remains. At this point in time in the year (keeping in mind the oil subsidy saga of 2011 and its consequent demonstrations in early 2012), one struggles to ignore some oil marketers who have continued to cheat and wallow in corrupt practices. But on a second thought, it is obvious that they do not act alone. The proverbial ‘value chain’ supporting their equally proverbial ‘bottom line’ is both long and wide. It will not be surprising to find the so-called visible champions and progressive leaders of CSR in the corporate Nigeria dotted in and around this nefarious value chain.

Unsurprisingly, corruption in Nigeria cannot be eliminated solely by executive fiats, neither is it the sole responsibility of the government and its institutions. Corruption poses collective problems and requires collective actions to deal with. What is rather surprising is the seeming reluctance and lack of courage on the part of the private sector to make anti-corruption a core CSR objective. Firms need to show interest and willingness to fight corruption in Nigeria. If not for anything, corruption adds extra burden to the cost of running business in the country. As a business leader once put it, “…in a corrupt country, you are only as good as your last bribe”. This extra cost is either passed to the consumers or to the shareholders. In dire situations, corruption can inhibit entrepreneurial developments and or put businesses out of business. In other words, it is all in our short and long term interest to fight corruption.

Firms can contribute to the fight against corruption and bad governance through their training and manpower development systems. They can make it a point of duty to ensure that all employees are aware of their civic rights and duties and enact them. They can embed such requirements in their performance and promotion systems and processes. Employees should be encouraged and supported to be politically literate and exercise their democratic responsibilities. This does not mean that firms should steer their employees towards any particular parties or candidates, or engage in irresponsible political lobbying. This in itself will constitute institutional corruption and abuse of power. Instead, employees should be empowered through good civic education to exercise their democratic rights and duties. Research has shown that firms who promote good values suffer less internal corruption by their employees. This is an immediate benefit for firms to consider fighting corruption in all forms and promoting good governance in the country.

In addition to influencing the value orientation of their employees, businesses can work with schools and the Federal and State Ministries of Education to ensure that civic education is firmly integrated into the national school curricula and properly taught. Given the state of our education system, this may require some extra financial and manpower resources to deliver. Besides, businesses interested in education as a form of CSR can actually create a coalition or interest group on this and pull their resources together for much more collective impacts. Going solo, which appears to be the preferred option for the sake of brand value, may not be an effective measure given the magnitude of the challenge at hand. Collaboration can be an effective CSR strategy to address complex issues in complex business environments.

In summary, CSR in Nigeria ought to reflect the peculiarities of our local needs. Fight against corruption and the promotion of good governance through civic education should be central to this pursuit, and there are many creative ways to realise this objective. Otherwise, CSR devoid of local content is only as good as tasteless salt.

Amaeshi is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Strategy and International Business at the University of Edinburgh, UK, a Visiting Fellow at the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Cranfield School of Management, and a Visiting Professor at the Lagos Business School, Nigeria. He consults in the broad areas of strategic corporate responsibility & governance, sustainability strategy & sustainable investing, and stakeholder strategy & reputation management. For details see my website.

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