CSR Asia Summit 2013: looking back

It’s slowly getting light outside while I’m writing this at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok for my flight to Hong Kong [though the end is written from a hotel in Hong Kong – the wait turned out to be too short for this long piece!]. It feels strange to already be moving on to a new country but at the same time I look back at some very good days spent in Bangkok. Apart from the Summit, which I’ll get to below, I’ve had an opportunity to meet with a few more people here – Dutch people working in CSR or in trade & investment support for Dutch companies. It’s been good to see their perspective as well on how things work for Dutch companies working in Thailand.

But, let’s talk about the CSR Asia Summit 2013, the reason for me to add on these few days to my trip in the first place. The main point that I’m taking home from this is that CSR in Asia, and – the theme of this summit – opportunities for inclusive business, is so much more than only supply chain responsibility which the discussion seems to focus on in the Netherlands. And even then I think that that discussion is already limited.

In fact, supply chain responsibility was barely on the agenda here in Bangkok. That makes it a topic that I’ve missed in the programme, but it also shows that there is a lot more. In the closing address of the Summit, chairman Richard Welford mentioned that supply chain – and the issues involved such as labour and human rights – are indeed the number 1 dilemma for CSR Asia’s partner organisations and will be the main challenge that work is needed on. It also seems to be a topic that a lot of work is being done on outside of the Summit which may have been a reason to focus on other issues and themes here at this time.

What the other issues on the agenda were? To mention a few: inclusive community engagement, reporting for investors, women entrepreneurship, responsible business in Myanmar, biodiversity, business ethics, disaster preparedness, children’s rights, and the list continuous on. In total there were over 20 sessions for participants to choose from which sometimes caused some indecision on my part! The speakers in these sessions (or at least in the ones that I went to) were mostly high quality: able to share their thoughts concisely & easily understandable, up front and honest about what the dilemmas were in their practice, and clearly speaking from a broad personal experience. It was great to see when the personal passion for this topic occasionally came through in their stories.

The best sessions for me were on inclusive community consultation, business and human rights and on future strategies for companies in a changing – and often uncertain – business environment.

Inclusive community consultation
The session on inclusive community consultation was presented by two speakers: Steven Bartholomeusz from Sarawak Energy, a company building several hydropower plants on Sarawak in Malaysia, and Simon Lord from New Britain Palm Oil, active in palm oil production with plantations mostly in Papua New Guinea. Simon had already been part of the opening panel where I was impressed with his up-front way of talking about the challenges in the palm oil industry. In this session, he started off with a quick explanation of FPIC: Free Prior Informed Consultation. A term unknown to me, but which is the name for a process of consultation with a community, which can be used in industries with a high impact on the communities that surround its physical activities: extractive, agriculture and forestry are a few industries that come to mind and which are well-known for the problems arising from working with communities.

The session continued with both speakers sharing the practical side of working with local communities: resistance to corporate plans, working with local leaders to find consensus. But also: communities who are eager to have a company move in to their area as often – especially in remote and underdeveloped areas such as Sarawak or PNG – having a company set up a plantation, power infrastructure or something else is the only way to bring economic, and with that social, development to the region. For people living in the region, this may be of more importance than preserving pristine forest or local biodiversity.

The anecdotes and experiences shared gave me the sense that this may be one of the most complicated issues across the CSR umbrella: especially because of the high impact the business activities may generate, and the long term perspective that is needed.

A company setting up an oil palm plantation generally moves in for a 100 years, if not more. But can a local community have that long term perspective, and are they able to make decisions now that necessarily affect future generations that may have very different ideas at that time. Especially when often the day-to-day priorities come first: providing in their personal livelihood that day and the next. And this is why working with the FPIC process seems to be essential in creating that local support for the long term.

Working in this area takes a lot of courage and determination. Not only because of the external challenges, but also because often the CSR manager involved is facing a lot of resistance internally: after all, the primary aim of the company is to move in as quickly as possible so it can start making money.

Business and human rights
Business and human rights is an issue that is on the agenda in the Netherlands and across Europe much more recently, and many countries are currently working on their National Action Plans explaining how they will work with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the Ruggie framework) in policy, with companies, and in legislation. The UK was the first country to publish their action plan, which can be found here, and the Netherlands is currently working on their plan which especially NGOs seem to be eagerly awaiting.

This session focused on what human rights mean for companies doing business in Asia and one of the first questions asked by the moderator was: is the Ruggie Framework a gamechanger in this field, for business and others? The replies to this – the panel consisted of a Priyanga Hettiarachi from NGO RightsBusiness based in Sri Lanka, Thomas Wise from Chevron, and the Asia Pacific director Sam Zahiri of the International Commission of Jurists – were mixed, with a part Yes and a part No. Though both of these answers also came from one and the same person: I probably agree with the Chevron rep when he said that no, the adoption of the Ruggie framework and the consequences of this for business is not a game changer. After all: all the things included in the UNGP are things that a responsible company should already be doing. At the same time, yes, it is a game changer: it has created a common language for business, the not-for-profit sector and government on an issue that was – and still is sometimes – fraught with misunderstanding and different perspectives. In this sense, the principles in the UNGP can provide a much clearer understanding of the issues involved and allow all parties to work on these.

The panelists shared how their respective organisations work on this topic, also including a good explanation of the framework itself: what does protect, respect, remedy mean? It was also good to see that the speakers focused on why this is an issue that you have to do something about as a company and how to convince your board. The answer? A lot of it comes down to risk management: “if you don’t know your risks, it can shut down your operations.” This message was one that also spoke from the earlier community consultation session: if you are not able to find a way to work in consensus with the local community, this can delay or cancel your project.

Maybe not surprisingly, the discussion – and especially the contribution of the lawyer in the panel – often talked about legal action & litigation as the, seemingly, only way of remedy. I was interested to know more about the alternatives: grievance mechanisms within companies is an important recommendation in the UNGP, but also the NCP-system of the OECD Guidelines (one that I know well by now) offers an opportunity for alternative forms of remedy and conflict resolution. It was a pity that there was not more time to discuss this, although following my question on this, I have to agree with Zahiri that the NCP-system still needs a lot of work and practical experience to grow into the effective mechanism it has the potential to be.

Strategies for the future
The session on strategies for the future opened up with a speaker from Volans, a London-based consultancy, and while listening to Amy Birchall I felt as if this would be the session to talk about some of the things I had missed up until then. Because, throughout the summit it also felt as if we’d been talking about business as usual, but done more responsibly. And a good thing to talk about of course. But, don’t we also need to talk about how to do business in a world that isn’t continuing as usual? This might be something much more abstract or more conceptual than CSR as we define it currently, but there are some great examples in the Netherlands of, usually, smaller companies who look at doing business differently and find new business models or new products.

Amy Birchall talked about these considerations: how do you prepare for an uncertain future? Some of the examples she gave can be found online, such as the B-team and Breakthrough Capitalism.

The other two speakers talked about how they prepare their companies for the future, by scenario planning and by getting the whole company involved in thinking about a vision on 2050 and what that will mean for the day-to-day operations of a company now (for example, what do you invest in, where does your R&D focus on?). Of course, following this, some of the questions from the audience focused on the practical side of this: HOW do you go about figuring out what the future may bring for your company when no one can predict the future?

The other sessions I attended were on business models for the Bottom of the Pyramid (which, in a way, is related to the last session on future strategies as well) and on responsible business in Myanmar. I will follow up with a separate post on the latter one, hopefully soon.

Apart from the content of the sessions, I really enjoyed the mix of people attending this summit: corporate representatives from several countries and across a wide range of industries & many NGOs were there and easily approachable during the many opportunities to chat and meet people. Though there were also two groups (mostly) missing: SME representatives and government. I think this could really strengthen the discussion if CSR Asia manages somehow to find a way to tap into these groups as well for future events.

All in all, being here was worthwhile. Next year’s will be in Hong Kong, so I am definitely going to try and attend again.

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