Sierra Leone Discusses CSR

Wednesday, 11 December, 2013

One of the most interesting things about CSR at the moment is that no one seems to know what it is. Considering 'CSR' is an acronym, this is not really surprising, but even when you have to spell it out for the eighth time, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, the responses range from scorn (“Corporate Responsibility is an oxymoron mate!”) to innocent ignorance.

To further complicate matters, there is debate (at least at CSR21) as to whether it should stand for ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ of ‘Community Social Relations’; perhaps ‘Confusing Semi-Requirement’ or ‘Convoluted Semantic Respectability’ would be more relevant at this stage.

And so this debate has found its way to Sierra Leone, where a ‘national dialogue on mining companies’ took place in Freetown, hosted by Action Aid and the African Youth Coalition Against Hunger. ‘“There seems to be a poor conceptual clarity or understanding” of CSR’ reported Africa Young Voices, ‘and with the presence of such information gap, citizens in areas where mining companies operate “frequently accuse” companies of  “poor adherence” if any to their social corporate responsibilities.’

Cecilia Mattia of NACE (National Advocacy Coalition on Extractives) which works with EITI and Publish What You Pay, made an interesting point in saying “Government should provide social services not mining companies. People should remind government of its primary responsibilities.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, it’s arguably a call to end the entire CSR enterprise, yet Mattia’s statement was likely more of a theoretical one than an immediate demand. Mattia is right, in an ideal world, an individual mine project wouldn’t need to provide social services, a thriving infrastructure would already exist. But Mattia’s words seem to sugget that CSR obscures and encourages the failings of the state, by providing ad hoc services that seem to take the burden of development away from the government.  

At the same time, Mattia arguably misses the point, for CSR is not reducible to the mere philanthropic provision of services that the state should be providing. CSR is a compact between company and community, which acknowledges the issues of a mining operation, but provides meaningful benefits that attempt to offset those issues: ‘creating value’ as one CEO described it.

Even in a developed community, mining companies require a CSR programme. Provision of social services is the most general denominator of CSR, but that would be a ‘thin’ description of what CSR is. Developed and wealthier communities are often more hostile to mines as they feel they have more to lose and are less enticed by employment etc. More broadly, CSR is rather an attempt to achieve ‘win-win’ situations, i.e. ‘create value’ for both company and community, avoiding stand-offs that arise from win-lose situations, which lead to disputes and sometimes violence.