CSR in the Arab World: A mission impossible?
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was introduced in many Arab countries in the mid-2000s. Kjetil Selvik, senior researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute, has studied the prevalence of CSR in the Arab World, using Dubai and Syria (before the Arab uprisings) as examples. Dubai and Syria are very different contexts. Syria is a socialist republic by constitution and a lower middle income country with a weak private sector. At the opposite end of the Arab spectrum, you find Dubai, a well-of emirate with a strong tradition for private business. Yet, in terms of promotion and reception of CSR, they share similar features. CSR initiatives have mainly originated from institutions connected to the authorities. In Dubai, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce was the main driving force in the CSR campaign. In Syria, the State Planning Commission paired with the UNDP to introduce CSR in the form of the UN Global Compact. Similarly, in Dubai and Syria, CSR has mainly been adopted by state-owned enterprises and/or crony capitalists.
-There is an element of buying goodwill when companies adopt CSR strategies. By embracing government-sponsored CSR initiatives, businessmen gain credit with the people in power, says Selvik.
The Zakat model of social responsibility
The Arab World has a well-established and firmly incorporated tradition of philantropic activities. Islam requires Muslims to contribute zakat, usually defined as 2,5% of their annual working capital to the well-being of the community. Hence, many businessmen make regular contributions to social welfare to fulfill religious requirements and social expectations. Selvik found that small scale businessmen are prone to stick to Zakat, rather than to embrace CSR which many perceive as a “Western concept”. For them, contributing to the community is an individual duty, and not something that a company line can replace. They take pride in belonging to a community of mutual assistance, and also build their good reputation through social engagement.
-Zakat is a religious obligation and part of a greater belief system, whereas CSR has a more pragmatic and mundane rationale. CSR is an attempt to build and gain acceptance for global norms like human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and anti-corruption. Although these norms do not inherently disagree with Islam, the skepticism towards Western value systems may be a challenge to CSR promoters, says Selvik.
Limited development impact
Despite conceptual dissonance, it can be hard to spot the difference between CSR and Zakat in practice. In Arab countries, CSR is often reduced to donations of money or food, or to planting trees and shrubbery in public parks. Measures like these do not satisfy the ambitions of CSR promoters, who would like to see systematic changes in how companies are operating. Does this mean that CSR has not had a development impact in the Arab World?
-The failure to be something beyond Zakat indicates that CSR in most instances has not been institutionalised. CSR does not affect the modus operandi in the companies that have adopted it, says Selvik.
One of the main challenges is that CSR is associated with a profit logic. According to Selvik, the argument put forth is that companies that play it responsibly will experience larger profits over time. The Zakat model differs fundamentally in its incentive for acts of social responsibility. This is something that the individual is supposed to do for God. Any strategic use of philanthropic activities as a way to promote your company or gain increased profit comes across as self-serving. Businessmen who depend on local recognition will usually avoid to publicly pride themselves on contributions to the community.
-CSR is promoted as a business tool to improve the company’s reputation, and companies frequently share successful CSR stories with the media and the public. This stands in stark contrast to Zakat, in which social solidarity is a symbol of your respect for God, says Selvik.
The normative differences between CSR and Zakat complicates the entrance of CSR into the Arab World.
-The CSR model introduces an ethical, normative framework that collides with local sensitivities. This is a potential problem of which organizations and businesses trying to introduce CSR in Arab countries should take note, says Selvik.