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The Era of CSO – and the Intrigue of India

By Tom Watson on February 2, 2006No Comment
ResponsibilityThe Era of CSO – and the Intrigue of India

Your eyes do not deceive you – that “O” is no accident.  Certainly not gone or forgotten, Corporate Social Responsibility has been recast as Corporate Social Opportunity, a term borrowed and now extended from the David Grayson & Adrian Hodges-authored book of the same name.

The power of that one little letter is in the paradigm shift it presents.  With the “R” of responsibility came an emphasis on risk mitigation; with the “O” of opportunity comes a consideration of how corporate behavior can impact development of new products, new services, and perhaps most importantly—new markets.  The beauty of CSO for those who apply it is its attention to core, universal business motivations; beyond serving a protective function, CSO embraces entrepreneurship. 

It’s no wonder, then, that opportunity was the word at last week’s Charting a Course for 2010 and Beyond, the 2006 Leadership Conference on Global Corporate Citizenship, convened by The Conference Board in New York.  Moving from conceptualization to implementation topped the agenda for the many multinational companies present, most of which have vested interest and reach within the United States.

Just as opportunity surfaced as the buzz word, there emerged one clear buzz place – India.  Some of the most innovative, and indeed impressive, CSO initiatives are underway there.  Why?  The answer, illogical at first glance, is that India’s socio-economic climate is a contradiction in terms.  Consider that:

The world’s largest democracy, with a 1.1 billion population, also has the highest  prevalence of tuberculosis in the world and a rate of HIV infection second only to  South Africa’s.  Last week, the nation’s first case of avian flu was confirmed. 

Boasting an economy exceeding $440 billion, one of the twelve largest in the world, India concurrently maintains the largest concentration of people living in poverty—more than 300 million.  1.5 million Indian children die before their first birthdays each year, and urban water and sanitation systems are severely overstressed.  Health and education combined represent just 3% of India’s GDP.

India, then, shows significant societal challenges that warrant international corporate support, along with enough infrastructure to support the new business that can generate such support; in other words, it is the ideal launch point for the new market model heralded by CSO. 

As Jane Nelson, Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, noted, CSO is all about “leverage, legitimacy, and insight.”  Here are examples of how several multinationals are building all three by taking advantage of opportunities in India.

What they’re doing: Project Shakti – Creating Rural Entrepreneurs is training 13,000 underprivileged Indian women to distribute Unilever products to 70 million rural consumers.  The company is working with women’s self-help groups, popular in the country, to teach selling and book-keeping skills and build commercial knowledge.  The women who participate are typically able to double their household incomes.

Why it matters: Project Shakti is evidence of Unilever’s understanding that, even in an advanced marketplace, “In many parts of the world…our route to market is through small and independent retailers.”  Having a “local touch” is part of the corporate philosophy, according to Janet Cawood, Vice President, Strategy.  90% of Unilever’s managers abroad are local, making the coordinated training of Indian women a natural human resource extension.  Shakti has also allowed Unilever to increase its reach to 30% more of India’s rural population than at its inception in 2000.  The company is joined in its efforts by some 300 groups—NGOs, banks, and various government entities—allowing it to take part in strategic public-private partnerships. 

What they’re doing: BT (British Telecom, which also holds New York-based BT Americas) has joined forces with Cisco Systems and global NGO One World for Ek Duniya Sawal Jawab.  The initiative uses voice technology to link impoverished communities to vital information; the pilot phase focuses on agribusiness in India, allowing farmers to dial in to an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System and record questions for experts in voice clip format.  Knowledge Workers (KWs) find pre-existing responses from an FAQ database and solicit expert feedback for new queries; farmers can then dial-in again to listen to voice clip responses or read text responses at Information Centers strategically located in Indian villages.

Why it matters: “We’re taking an e-platform…using technology to help world challenges,” explained Janet Blake, BT’s Head, Global Corporate Social Responsibility.  By leveraging its place as a leading provider of voice, data, internet, and other telecommunications solutions in 170 countries, BT is using its professional services to enhance its corporate citizenship.  In addition to funding the pilot, the company is working to make Ek Duniya Sawal Jawab a sustainable enterprise, tapping into the resources that helped BT make the 2006 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World list.

What they’re doing: The Dell Foundation opened the Dell Computer Center for children at the Parikrma Learning Center in Sahakamagar.  The company donated the space, computers, and employee volunteer time to teach technology skills to underprivileged youth.  In partnership with The Hope Foundation’s “Learning into the Future—Preparing Youth for the Digital Age” program, employees are also providing classroom assistance and program training to computer teachers.
Why it matters: The company’s workforce in India, already 10,000 strong, is set to increase by 50%, to 15,000 in the next two years, according to Sustainable Business Manager Tod Arbogast.  “We are committed to making an impact in the communities where we live and work.”  As the number of such communities in India continues to expand, Dell sees abundant opportunities to use the professional skills of its employees to benefit the underprivileged population, particularly youth.  In so doing, the company just might be investing in its next generation workforce – a corporate social opportunity that has new market sustainability in mind.

What’s your company doing?  Email ICP and tell us what your corporate social opportunities are.  Email author Elisabeth Anderson ( with CSO in the subject line. 

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