Yesterday, I attended the Global Social Responsibility Conference organized by the Bangladesh German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. One story of corporate social responsibility that I found particularly compelling was that of Aboni Knitwear, the 2012 winner for Most Innovative Idea at the Social and Environmental Excellence Awards held in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The factory has a workforce that’s 60% female so the management created a daycare center and produces and distributes sanitary napkins to employees below cost at less than 50% of their market value to reduce employee absenteeism so that female employees do not have to needlessly forgo career and income. I think this is a wonderful idea and I would love to see more employers in the developing world replicating it.
It’s a great example of an intervention that seems relatively small but is immensely impactful. For men who may be confused by this, sanitary napkins equal mobility and reproductive health and are financially out of reach for the majority of the world’s female population.
I started my career in the banking sector as an idealistic bohemian drowning in a sea of MBAs, working at a local Bangladeshi bank with strong ties to rural development. While I specifically sought out an organization that would deepen my understanding of development issues, the case was very different for most of my fellow colleagues for whom the ultimate dream was to have a prestigious high paying job at a multinational bank or corporation. While I too whined about the drawbacks of working for a local firm such as the low pay, lack of benefits, the less than stellar working environment etc., I eventually came to realize that local Bangladeshi firms had something else to offer. The realization came only after I had completely removed myself from the situation, having left the job and the country to pursue my Masters degree at the University of Oxford. One of the university clubs I became involved with was the Oxford Microfinance Initiative, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of smart and energetic young students who were well versed and extremely knowledgeable regarding the micro-finance sector in Bangladesh, particularly the Grameen Bank micro-finance model and the social business model advocated by our home grown Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Yunus. That is when it really occurred to me that Bangladesh is the birthplace of a banking revolution. While the conventional western banking system is in shambles, our unique brand of banking which was adapted specifically to solve local problems, has captured the imagination of the rest of the world and they are eagerly observing us and waiting to see what else we have to offer, whether it be in the field of banking, climate change adaptation, public health etc. etc. The people of the world are looking to us for answers. Looking back, I feel quite bad about having taken for granted my involvement in the banking sector in Bangladesh. It has been a privilege to be a part of this movement and I only hope that my ex colleagues working at local banks feel the same way one day.
During my Masters, one of my major areas of interest was Corporate Social and Environmental Accountability, which opened my eyes to the true untapped potential of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). When implemented shrewdly and strategically, CSR must take into account the competitive context of each individual business to specifically tackle those issues for which it is particularly well suited and aim to maximize synergy between the business and the greater society within which they are embedded.
CSR in Bangladesh is usually implemented in a rather superficial manner wherein the activities undertaken are not strategically linked to the business organization’s activities and operations but are limited to isolated cases of corporate philanthropy with little planning with regard to the maximization of positive impacts.
Businesses must actively work to identify how their activities may be aligned to maximize positive social and environmental outcomes through interventions that are cost-effective and in their long term best interest. I highly recommend the work of Michael Porter and Mark Kramer to anyone who is interested in making the most of their company’s CSR programs.