The role of business is changing. That was the take home message from last week’s Emerging Market Development conference, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Recent emphasis on “corporate social responsibility” has pushed businesses to wade into pools that would have been completely foreign to managers a decade ago. The conference sought to guide this transition by bringing together businesses, government aid donors and non-profits to assess how multinationals can engage constructively with small but growing markets around the world.
The refrain of the day was that the private sector plays a crucial role in development. Over and over again, corporate representatives stated that like it or not, their businesses are drivers of development. In coming to terms with this reality, members of the private sector have added “corporate social responsibility” into their agendas. This requires corporations to look at international investments from a more encompassing stand-point, rather than a simply fiscal one.
Better information through better partnerships…
Last week, corporate representatives spoke of the need for more holistic information on market environments so they can fulfill their newly understood development role. This information must go beyond charting of business climate to include political climate, service delivery and human rights concerns. The Business Civic Leadership Center and Corporate Citizenship presented one solution to this information gap– linking corporations with international development agencies. These types of public-private partnerships allow for a sharing of understand localized climates and have on-the-ground experience from both representatives.
While gaining knowledge from international government agencies is crucial for businesses entering emerging markets, today’s panelists also spoke of a need for commitments within the markets’ local communities. Many of the success stories shared were rooted in a company’s ability to identify a local group to sustain both their business and philanthropic ventures.
The conference made it clear that the development power of business will only be improved by increasing the dialogue between the typically segregated private, public and independent actors in the international field. Each group brings unique “lessons-learned” to the dialogue and nuanced perceptions of how international relations work. Sharing this information can take “corporate social responsibility” from a tossed-around, feel-good phrase, into increasingly positive development programs rooted in emerging markets.
Meanwhile at the Chamber…
These issues aren’t easy, particularly when development issues collide with traditional business interests. For instance, the US Chamber of Commerce is facing internal dispute over how best to approach pending climate change legislation. The Chamber runs what is by far the US’s biggest lobbying operation, and plans to aggressively oppose climate legislation, in part by demanding the EPA put “the science of climate change on trial”. In response, Apple, Nike and others walked out of the organization or its leadership posts. Corporate social responsibility remains buzzword of the day, but conflicts between economic and social interests remain far from resolved.
— Norah Mallaney