Making sense of CSR in the context of Myanmar

CSR: there’s increasing noise about Corporate Social Responsibility in both business and NGO sectors of Myanmar.  Although it may sound new in Myanmar, we can trace its similarity to the key ideas contained in classical Ethics and Buddhist philosophy, and take note of its emergence in the literature of management for almost 2 decades.  ‘CSR has won the battle of ideas’: even the sceptical survey on CSR in the Economist in January 2005 has accepted that much – which means we are no longer arguing or questioning whether we should deploy CSR or not, it has graduated from being a ‘nice to have’supplement to an essential element – so rather the question now is how we can best embrace it.
Right then, we face another challenge.  When we hear about CSR, it really depends on who’s talkingabout it.  To be frank, it’s safe to claim that there’s a lack of common terminology around CSR.  We have to be mindful that CSR, as an approach to responsible management of an organisation, is not just a topic for the business community. At the same time businesses may view NGOs and those in the social sector as ‘DREAMY’ whereas NGOs may reciprocally see businesses as ‘DIRTY’.  Fortunately the two Dirty-Dreamy extremes could be avoided as we in Myanmar have the middle way. 
Debates on Corporate Social Responsibility often involve communication between vastly different groups in society: from NGOs to national governments to commercial businesses and the local communities in which they operate.  With different actors involved in the CSR debate, it is best to identify the stakeholders surrounding business operations to actively work for the interests of those stakeholders within and beyond the organisational borders. 
Another pitfall with CSR is that companies usually view it as an exclusively external activity.  This is evident in corporate donation events which usually receive good media coverage and certain activities could even be seen as window-dressing.  As a responsible business, internal stakeholders such as staff, suppliers and customers should be responsibly treated and not doing so can adversely affect business survival on the long run.  Following the timeless expression ‘Charity begins at home’, it will be in the interest of business organisations to practise internal CSR within their operations in conjunction with projects for the external stakeholders. 
To initiate and implement CSR activities in a systematic manner befitting that of the organisation’s overall strategy, a CSR champion or a team of CSR champions should be designated within the company, or with the assistance of an external collaborator.  Such champions can be selected from the organisation’s most active and committed advocates of CSR who are bi-lingual in the spheres of social development and commercial sectors.  Individuals may be interested in becoming CSR champions for the organisation because such an arrangement can providethem opportunities to put personal values and beliefs into action, and build relationships with like-minded individuals. However if we set up such a champion team without clear alignment with CSR strategy and champion initiatives, milestones and accountabilities to measure progress, or processes in place to recognise and reward schemes … the team will eventually lose momentum and motivation will drop.
To succeed in sustainably championing CSR, blessing from high level executives/managers is necessary.  The champion network should have a senior supporter to ensure high-level buy-in and to help remove potential obstacles(organisational politics may come in time to time).  Such a supporting senior personnel should attend CSR champion meetings on a regular basis to maintain a high-level of engagement.  Nevertheless CSR champions should get support not just from “higher-ups”, but also (and equally important) to obtain understanding and support from those involved at grassroots operations level. 
Myanmar is a fertile ground and as a nation we can leapfrog in the area of CSR not only within the ASEAN but also in the world.  Our training in ethics from very young days in the form of ‘codes’ for students, teachers, employers, employees, husbands and wives could be very a good foundation for the nurturing of CSR culture.  Mindfulness is also taught quite widely and CSR in fact can be seen as organisational mindfulness in dealing with its stakeholders, internal and external. 
Optimism aside, to realistically achieve our CSR goals, we have to critically look at our Myanmar companies’ operations.  Most companies rarely have an organisational or employee handbook, and only a select few businesses will have a set of SOPs or Standard Operating Procedures.  It is worth mentioning these as – if we are to actively seek our CSR objectives – we have to integrate them into the ethos of our businesses, and difficult it will be if we do not have such systems within our organisations because then, what should we link our evolving ideology to?
Perhaps this will be a question for your CSR Champion

Thuta Aung (HamsaHub)