It is time for businesses to redefine their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and double down on them to ensure their long-term sustainability.
I watched an interesting video interview with the father of microfinance and Nobel Laureate Professor Muhummad Yunus on the pitfalls of capitalism and his solution to the problem. 1 In it, he candidly highlights something that we all know about but have chosen to ignore: while capitalism has been largely successful in driving society’s progression, it has brought about serious problems in social inequality. For example, he asserted that “eight persons in the world have more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent of the population of the entire world”. I found the pervasiveness of inequality appalling. Think about it: eight persons in the world possessing more wealth than 3.6 billion people worldwide. These must be eight supremely powerful individuals.
Being an academic, I decided to research on social inequality and consult multiple evidential sources to verify, support, or debunk Professor Yunus’s assertion. It was not a difficult task in this case: a simple search on Google showed an article titled World’s eight richest people have same wealth as poorest 50% 2. I learned from the article that the social inequality study that Professor Yunus cited was conducted by Oxfam 3—a confederation of 20 independent charitable organisations focussing on the alleviation of global poverty which was founded in 1942 and led by Oxfam International.
The discoveries from these research findings are worrying. According to the Oxfam article 3, 62 of the wealthiest billionaires possess riches equivalent to the poorest 50 per cent of the world’s population. One year later and the capitalist system has funnelled and concentrated wealth to just eight persons (from 62). The rate with which the capitalist system has exponentially funnelled wealth to a select few is scary.
Wealth equals power. These eight individuals have the power to change the world for better or for worse. As the famous adage goes: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. An insatiable appetite can propel individuals to acquire more wealth at the expense of others. Today’s sustainability challenges of climate change, the mass extinction of species, and the destruction of biodiversity are some consequences arising from the relentless accumulation of personal wealth. Insanity is expecting to stop social inequality by continuing to entrench ourselves in this capitalist system.
Professor Yunus’s timely reminder reiterated the severity of social inequality and helps us rethink the fundamental responsibility of businesses to society. He argued that businesses are ultimately set up to help people solve their problems. Businesses like human beings comprise two aspects: selfishness and selflessness. Selfishness is driven by the need to sustain profitability to ensure short-term business sustainability; while selflessness is based on the underlying philosophy that businesses can respond more readily to the needs of society by engaging in those activities that help the society to thrive. This increases the reputation of the business and society’s trust which in turn ensures the business’ long-term sustainability. The strategy to invest in selflessness seems like a good idea in an era of turbulent businesses.
Unfortunately, many businesses today (according to Professor Yunus) have lost sight of the selfless aspect of helping society and are focussed almost entirely on the selfish aspect of earning profits—the effects of which are already affecting our daily lives. For example, Singapore’s relentless focus on profitability is so deeply entrenched in the minds of businesses that huge amounts of food waste (around 809,000 tonnes) are generated each year throughout the food supply chain. And yet, 10 per cent of Singapore’s population still remain food insecure.
Dr Jenson Goh (2nd row, extreme left) and his students canvas for food to be redistributed to the underprivileged. (GOH)
For every semester over the last four semesters, I would bring my Residential College 4 students in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre to canvas perfectly edible but “ugly” food (that would otherwise be thrown out by businesses) and redistribute them to the underprivileged. We would obtain a truckload of food after 90 minutes of canvassing, thanks to the generosity of businesses. This prompted my students to ask why this could not be done in a more scalable and systematic fashion. It is true that a systematic collection and redistribution of food would go a long way to addressing Singapore’s food insecurity. But this is not practised widely because of the deeply entrenched selfish thinking that is dominant in the minds of businesses. If Singapore’s companies can integrate a more selfless approach of doing business into their CSR initiatives, perhaps we can solve or at least reduce the nation’s social inequality gap. But how?
Drawing from past experience as a Senior Business Excellence Assessor and having assessed more than a dozen companies now, one thing is certain: business leaders must redefine their key stakeholders to include the society and environment and accord these the same priority as their customers and shareholders. Leaders need to start asking what requirements would the society/ environment have on their businesses if they (the society/environment) can speak for themselves? This question will spark ideas on how to develop effective CSR programmes that help the society/environment and ensure long-term business sustainability. Once identified, leaders will need to set aside resources to fund these programmes. There should ideally be a balanced investment portfolio between CSR programmes and profitability programmes to ensure the short-and long-term sustainability of businesses. More importantly, leaders will need to develop and enforce performance and benefit measurements on its CSR programmes to ensure these programmes fulfil their objectives.
The topic of social inequality in Singapore has resurfaced and needs to be revisited. It is time for businesses with CSR programmes in place to examine this and for businesses who don’t have a CSR programme to start developing one. If we can come together as a community, we can collectively tackle social inequality in Singapore. It is time for businesses to redefine their CSR programmes and double down on them to ensure their long-term sustainability.
1 AJ+, 2018. Muhummad Yunus: fixing capitalism, https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/294407464508144/.
2 Elliott L, 16 January 2017. World’s eight richest people have same wealth as poorest 50%, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/16/worlds-eight-richest-people-havesame-wealth-as-poorest-50.
3 Oxfam International, 16 January 2017. Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world.
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