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Will corporate philanthropy save the world?

Will corporate philanthropy save the world?

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By Saad Sultan.

COVID-19 has halted the world. For good or for bad, it seems like everybody is on the same page across the globe. 

While there are a myriad of opinions on how the post pandemic world will look, as of now, only one thing is certain: precarious and unreliable public health sectors across the world are crippling in front of Covid-19. Pakistan’s collective fear, panic and hysteria is stemming from one question, “If countries like Italy, Spain, US, UK, France are not able to contain it, what will happen to us?”  

This fear is real and it is reverberating across South Asia. And where governments scamper to cope, philanthropists are stepping in to fill the gap.

As I write, “The second batch of the much-needed medical supplies donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundation has arrived in Pakistan today as a part of their drive that would supply essentials in 10 Asian countries”. 

One of the top textile industrialists of Pakistan tweeted, “While ensuring the livelihood of its workers, company has earmarked 20 million to combat the COVID-19. We will provide 1,000 protective suits to medics and our team is also in discussion to procure Ventilators, PPE and COVID-19 test kits from China”. 

In our neighbourhood country, TATA group has announced, “Daily workers of all Tata group companies will get salary in March and April the dues of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises will be paid immediately”. CEO of Mahindra group said, “To help in the response to this unprecedented threat, we at the Mahindra Group will immediately begin work on how our manufacturing facilities can make ventilators. At Mahindra Holidays, we stand ready to offer our resorts as temporary care facilities”.  

The trend around the world is similar; Google and other companies (but not Amazon) have pledged hefty amounts to fight the pandemic. Their money is literally a “breath of fresh air” for humanity, considering the value of ventilators in these precarious times.

The capitalist nature of economy in neoliberal order has left us at the mercy of poor governments and rich corporations. While it sounds bitter to put a question mark on any individual’s intention behind such a voluntary act, there is also an urgent need of being interrogative about a system that allows us to survive on whims of a few while governments largely remain incompetent. This situation also raises questions about the theoretical basis and social outputs of complex models like Private-Public partnerships and corporate social responsibility–terms that have enabled big corporations to swiftly merge with traditional philanthropy to soften their image in the collective public mindset. 

Let’s examine the public-private partnership model in Pakistan. On one side, imagine the private education landscape, private health care mechanism, private banking system, and now compare these structures with their public counter parts. There is hardly any substantial partnership going on between these parallel universes except in documentations, news and reports. 

Even during quarantine, private institutes have all the means and mechanisms to shift online but nobody knows the fate of students from the public sector. It may sound conservative, but corporate social responsibility also has a limited reach if compared with its intended purpose.

How impactful is CSR?

“Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable—to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. By practicing corporate social responsibility, also called corporate citizenship, companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental”. In this definition by Investopedia, the word “self-regulation” is important to note. That means, dedicated teams of big corporations (closely linked with a marketing team) will decide the nature of moral responsibility and its urgency/priority in social context rather than any central authority like the government.

In an ideal scenario, rather than self-regulating, if every company dedicates and directs stipulated CSR funds through a legislative institution to a central authority, we can envision more workable Public-Private partnership model. 

Having a public sector authority is significant in this case for three reasons, a) corporations don’t have technical ability or ethical standing to prioritise a social issue b) governments are naturally responsible for the social well-being of citizens and it’s their job to design social welfare models C) Only government bodies have relevant data and reach to form appropriate social interventions.

In reality, companies have intelligently merged CSR schemes with their marketing strategies. For instance, KFC, a MNC, runs a charity for hungry kids in Pakistan. Interestingly,  not through dedicating any margin of their own profits but collecting funds from their customers (Just like Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon has created a fund to pay his workers amid coronavirus crisis and is also being appreciated by media outlets). 

Cadbury recently decided that they will provide milk bottles to impoverished families. Pepsi last summer initiated a campaign that targeted rural areas where they provided energy saver lights wrapped in Pepsi plastic bottles. Coke also lured consumers to collect coins in plastic bottles (only in their bottles of course) to help the needy some months ago. Surf Excel is collaborating with organisations that are working for out of school children. 

These campaigns are visually attractive, marketing savvy, catchy, and in many instances, become viral as well.  The impact of such campaigns is always felt by consumers but there are always questions of validity, reach and sustainability which usually go unanswered. Even during an ongoing pandemic, companies are self-regulating and CEOs are personally deciding the nature of aid. 

While we have time to think these days, we must explore more about how the neoliberal economic model has numbed the society as a collective for decades. How advertising has moulded our opinions so intelligently that they almost go unnoticed. We must think that if we come out of this alive, how are we going to prepare for the next humanitarian crisis? 

Are we going to leave it in the hands of a few, who become national heroes in the aftermath of such grave emergencies? Are we not going to wonder why we are surrounded with political leaders who have created a fortune for themselves from public resources but we as a nation remain poor and helpless. Right now we are dependant on voluntary work, charitable initiatives, relief packages, and international aid. But once this over, let’s rethink, reset and recalibrate the strange world of super heroes around us. As one social media user rightly said, “The whole world is closed including parliaments, churches, mosques, schools, malls, parks but Waseem Akram is still selling Arial on TV”. 

As one social media user rightly said, “The whole world is closed including parliaments, churches, mosques, schools, malls, parks but Waseem Akram is still selling Arial on TV”.

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