Saturday, January 31, 2009

CSR reflections on Davos (Day 3)

When the biggest news item is the (lack of) mobile phone ettiquette displayed by British Prime Mininster Gordon Brown, I begin to question the value of blogging about Davos Day 3. But then, at least his opposition party leader, David Cameron, revived yesterday's "quest for a new capitalism" theme, calling for "capitalism with a conscience".

Cameron urged businesses not to ignore the interests of society in the pursuit of profits, saying it's time for wealth to be distributed "more equally". Now, I don't blame you if you're pinching yourself. No, you're not dreaming, and yes, this is from the same conservative party that brought us free-market spin-doctor, Margaret Thatcher.

Cameron's call on Day 3 was the exception however (that was Day 2's theme - try to keep up David!). Most of the talk and twitter on Day 3 was about protectionism - dire warnings that this is precisely what led to the Great Depression in the 1930s and tut-tutting by German Chancellor Merkel about America's auto-industry bale-out, which is Protectionism with a big P - protectionism of the $25 billion variety.

They may be right, but this is a bit of a tough sell on a world still fighting the runaway fires of neoliberal capitalism. What's more, it is precisely managed protectionism that has helped sustain China's rise to prosperity, while neither America or Europe has been prepared to forfeit their perverse agricultural or fossil fuel subsidies.

But before I head off on a tangent ... the day was not totally devoid of CSR-related themes. Al Gore was seen looking much cheerier than usual, assuring us that Obama's commitment to a post-Kyoto deal on climate change is real. Let's hope Obama gets further with his good intentions than Gore did during his term as Vice President.

(I remember Gore at a two day training event organised by the University of Cambridge Programme for Industry in 2007, when asked what he would do differently if he was in the White House today, he said, I would be President, not Vice President! Well, he's got the next best thing - the ear of Obama).

Denmark's Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, politely asked rich and poor countries alike to commit to big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of year-end talks on a new climate treaty that he will host in Copenhagen. Ironically, the worldwide economic collapse may be good news for the climate, at least in the short term. Remember how Russia's emissions went into freefall along with their economy in the early 1990s?

The messages out of Africa were sadly familiar, but no less true: Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga criticised Zimabwe's Robert Mugabe for allowing 3,000 people to die of cholera and African leaders for not taking a unified stand against him. He admitted that corruption on the continent must be reigned in, but so too must Western companies exploiting Africa's resources.

Amazingly, there were still a few brave, intrepid banking honchos pleading the financial industry's case. HSBC chairman Stephen Green said that banks must not be "demonized" over the financial crisis. "Banks have clearly done things wrong. Some of the practices did not contribute, by any reasonable standards, to human welfare." 

Thanks for the apology, Steve, but you won't get off the naughty-step that easily! Besides, if I'm not wrong, most of your mates are now working for the politicians. So we'll let you know how we feel about the banks - demonic or otherwise - when next we place our democratic votes. 

Which makes me wonder ... could we be witnessing a shift from CSR to CNR - from corporate social responsibility to corporate national responsibility?