CSR21 at the 10th Risk Mitigation & CSR Seminar

Thursday, 3 October, 2013

CSR21 has never noticed Canada House before, quietly perched on the north-western corner of Trafalgar Square, but last Tuesday it hosted the most interesting conference in town: ‘The 10th Risk Mitigation and CSR Summit’, held by the The Canada-Southern Africa Chamber of Business. It was the first time the summit has been held abroad, and was well attended by an eclectic mix of intellectuals, battle hardened miners, CSR professionals and curious acolytes who wanted to go beyond the buzzwords of ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainability’.

A reel of unique and interesting presentations left us much the wiser on the issue of company/community relations. The first talk from the well known Hatch Ltd got us in the mood with a discussion of operating issues in South Africa, and Martin Jones of gold miner Banro followed up with a real, in depth look at the experiences of a company operating in an underdeveloped and war torn country.

So far, all straightforward; yet Claude Baissac arguably won talk of the day, briskly dissecting many ideals and concepts about risk, CSR and community relations. Dismissing the ‘model’ approach to CSR and community relations, that tries to precisely quantify, analyse and respond to on the ground risk, Baissac urged us to accept risk, to embrace risk: “Traditional risk management seeks neatness, simplicity and ease of reporting. It reflexively, pathologically, seeks to order disorder in ways that separates, segregates and removes the systemic in the system. Not helpful”.

Baissac instead wants us to ‘replace the expectation of prediction with the capacity to respond and evolve’. Perhaps part of this increased capacity to ‘respond and evolve’ was suggested by an interesting CSR proposal in the form of Canadian company MacCormick, well presented by founder and CEO Bonnie Lyn de Bartok. She called for greater and more ‘effective reporting’ of CSR work. Taking a survey similar to ours, she made some interesting observations:

- 18 companies out of the top 20 [companies with the best CSR] mention or demonstrate the social programmes or investment, but only 5 disclose the impact

- 2 out of the 20 companies are demonstrating efforts to monitor and evaluate social impact

These apposite figures reflect one of the key issues in CSR, namely that there is an abundance of good will and effort, but a dearth of demonstrating the positive impacts of their efforts (especially to the people who should be seeing those positive impacts).

All the presenters made sagacious presentations with other notable speakers making an impact: Peter Ruxton showed us the correlation of development in Tanzania with the rise of its extractives sector; Richard Morgan shared his wealth of wisdom from a lengthy career of embassies, high commissions, journalism, Unilever and currently, International Government Relations Adviser at Anglo American. Ben Peachey of the ICMM demonstrated the quality work they are doing in ensuring value is shared from stakeholders in the extractives industry.

CSR is still a fledgling concept, and the conference would not have seemed out of place at a philosophy seminar, with numerous opinions as to what it is, why it’s important and how to ‘do it’. In one sense this is laudable, for any movement and idea that’s worth its salt should always be assessing and reassessing itself, looking for progression, and there was a real atmosphere of shared interests and ideals at the event.

But in another sense, if CSR takes its naval gazing too far and for too long, it risks becoming redundant for the very companies, organizations and people it is supposed to help. With a growth of institutions in the field, there is risk of a dazzling fragmentation that could paralyze stakeholders trying to approach CSR services. Nevertheless, with such common interests to see the private sector expand its social scope as globalization continues, the will to work together and share insight, demonstrated at conferences like these shows there are meaningful noises coming from these quarters.