11 April 2014

Challenges of the private sector in giving back to society unconditionally

Sretta Thavisin, President of Sansiri Plc., visits a classroom near Faida informal tented settlement in Lebanon.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Napat Phisanbut

 Observation from the field by Srettha Thavisin, President of Sansiri Plc.

(Srettha Thavisin and his team visited UNICEF-supported projects in Lebanon in February 2014 to learn about UNICEF assistance to refugee children affected by Syrian conflict. Sansiri Plc, is one of UNICEF's major corporate partners. This article, translated from the original version in Thai language, was written by Srettha and published in Post Today newspaper on Tuesday April 1, 2014).

About two years ago I wrote about my view on the practice of corporate sector responsibility (CSR), which I think all of us, the private sector in particular, should change.  In the article, I noted the reason why: there are still so many social and economic problems facing mankind today because we are still attached to a ‘stereotyped” view of CSR.

What I meant by stereotyping was that “the private company” is often perceived as   being an “evil” entity in our capitalist society.  As a result, companies -- despite having a great deal of potential -- are neither trusted nor given the opportunity by society to help solve social problems through their own initiatives. 

The result is that private companies are passive is that their efforts, and their resources are allocated to activities that are aimed at reducing risks or social pressures for their business.  Simply put, most companies’ focus their major CSR activities focused on social risks that are directly related to their business, production process and supply chain.   I believe that many private companies have overcome this stereotyping problem, but at the same time I also believe that many are still stuck in it.

So when CSR activities are created to respond to some particular issue, they are being used as marketing tools for building local community relations or for national public relations or advertising campaigns in order to promote the company’s image. Their CSR activities are mainly focused on making “donations” that are used to promote hidden agendas.

I am not talking only about Thailand, as this kind of thinking is prevalent all over the world. Many of the world’s major corporations are still stuck in this way of thinking.  This is still the reality of “interaction between the private sector and social issues” and this should be changed.  This is what I have learned during the past three to four years by working with UNICEF.

  Refugee children inside the classroom near Faida informal tented settlement in  Lebanon.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Napat Phisanbut
I believe everyone knows that UNICEF is an organization that provides assistance to children worldwide. UNICEF works on many issues, including child development, access to education, gender equity, violence against children and child labour, HIV/AIDS and protection of children’s rights.  Another important area of UNICEF’s work is providing emergency assistance both during natural and manmade emergencies. No matter how difficult the situation, UNICEF is committed to saving lives and protecting the rights of affected children, and in providing services in the areas of  health, nutrition, water and sanitation, protection, education and HIV/AIDS.

If you follow the news closely, you may be aware that UNICEF  appealed for nearly  USD $2.2 billion in 2014 in order to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 85 million people -- 59 million of them children -- who suffer from unrest, natural disasters and other kinds of emergencies in 50 countries. This is the largest amount of emergency funding UNICEF has appealed for in its history. This is no doubt due to the fact that violence and social problems that are multiplying every day, together with many existing challenges that remain unsolved.

If you have ever donated to these emergency causes or understand how UNICEF spends their funds on emergencies, you will be aware that your donation goes into a general emergency fund that is used to help those most in need.  Having this kind of funding allows UNICEF to come up with innovative solutions to address complicated issues and integrate long-term rehabilitation programmes into the humanitarian assistance it provides during emergencies.

However, donations to organizations like UNICEF are not always made in this way.   Many private companies still donate only for specific causes, upon which I do not want elaborate.  I recently visited UNICEF supported projects in Lebanon to learn about the impact the Syrian civil war has on children, which has included many hundreds of thousands of children becoming refugees. Did you know that the political, ethnic and religious conflicts not only caused the civil war but also directly impact on donors’ willingness to provide funding to help the victims of the conflict?

What makes me say this?  Please look around you. We can see that some conflicts have existed for many years. Some go on for decades and centuries.  There are still certain countries and organizations that refuse to provide aid to those who need it most just because of the conflicts of the past or the ones that still persist.  Having said that, it is not easy for UNICEF to raise emergency funds from some countries and some big corporations that have not been able to see beyond these old conflicts.

What I am trying to say is this: in addition to the business agenda there are also social, ethnic and religious agendas which affect decisions on whether or not to help.  I personally think this is very sad, because real help should not be subject to conditions.  It should come from the pure desire to help all mankind, regardless of who they are, where they are or what they believe in.  Providing assistance through a trusted, transparent organization that has regular audits of its activities is something we should do.

I think political, ethnic and religious differences were invented to vary the human society, not to create conflicts.  Therefore, as a member of the private sector, I would like to ask everyone, whether you are an individual or a big business venture, to view “help” as an unconditional matter. I want to ask other corporations to overcome any bias they may have and to provide genuine assistance to those in need without any prejudice.

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