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By virtue of their specific cultural imperatives and practices, African businesses are invested with a social mission, extending beyond their exclusively economic role. At a time when a more corporate and Western conception of CSR is gradually becoming established in Africa, these two approaches can mutually enrich each other – as long as their respective values are recognised and their complementarity is effectively engaged.

In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa the public debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR) is still in an embryonic phase. African actors in general have very little awareness of international initiatives in this area and businesses with an independent CSR strategy or policy remain few in number. In anglophone African countries generally, and especially in South Africa, interest in this issue is more pronounced and various initiatives have been launched. The discussion is also becoming institutionalised in Morocco, Tunisia and some other francophone countries, even if its scope still remains limited to a Small number of  organisations.² Academics, business professionals, associations and experts are beginning to take up this subject – an issue that is also increasingly attracting media attention and engaging public opinion. The location of multinational subsidiaries with a group CSR policy – formulated at head office level – and the current massive presence of the media sphere and communication facilities, are probably among the factors driving these recent developments. Yet even though African companies have begun to take on board the concept and its implications relatively recently, it is highly probable that they were already practising CSR in all but name – if only via the fundamental social role they play within their communities.

Diverse approaches to CSR in Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, corporate social responsibility is largely based on philanthropic initiatives in the fields of healthcare, education, employment, infrastructures and the  environment. In Africa, the ultimate purpose of businesses – and therefore by extension
their responsibility – is primarily social in nature: a business should yield a profit for its owner and the owner’s family but also for the community. The business success should help to build social cohesion rather than jeopardising it. People’s respect for the entrepreneur will in part dépend on his or her contribution to the community’s well-being (Yaméogo, 2007). Alongside this strictly social aspect, the idea of conserving shared resources is also strongly rooted in African traditions, requiring every member of the community to protect them.

At the same time an approach to CSR based on the Western model is starting to become established. Intergovernmental organisations – such as the African Union and UEMOA (West African Economic and Mone-tary Union) – are setting up frameworks promoting its development, public authorities are strengthening regulatory frameworks to encourage the private sector to adopt international standards. Major African businesses in the formal sector are adopting QSE (Quality, Safety and Environment) tools and certifications – ISO 9001, ISO 14001 or OHSAS 18001, for example. Another example of the general trend towards standardisation on the African continent is the spread of the ISO 26000 standard – specifically relating to organisations’ social responsibility. It is still rare, though, for an African business to have a dedicated CSR unit.

It should also be noted that the Anglo-Saxon approach to CSR, based more on a dialogue
with the company’s stakeholders, is more widespread in Africa than the European and French approach – which places the emphasis on sustainable development and on companies’ compliance with national and international regulations.

At least two forms of CSR therefore co-exist in Africa – a Western-inspired form globally regulated by the ISO 26000 standard and an African form founded on the primarily social function of any business.

Key African cultural specificities

Applying international CSR frameworks in Africa without any adjustment to local realities
is liable to decontextualise businesses’ CSR initiatives, disconnecting them from the real needs of their beneficiaries and rendering them meaningless in stakeholders’ eyes. International standards – in this case ISO 26000 – must be adapted to local economic situations and cultural specificities or run the risk of remaining largely ineffective. This is not to say that there is any fundamental incompatibility between a “Western” CSR policy and a more traditional conception of the social role of business. African corporate responsibility does not contradict African modernisation – in fact it supports the modernising process. It is by taking African practices into account that the requirements of CSR can be integrated effectively within an organisation. The two approaches should do more than just co-exist – they must mutually acknowledge and enrich each other. Any CSR policy in Africa must take into account the fundamental responsible practices in African corporate management. Firstly, business funding is intrinsically community based. It is the community, via the tontine system of informal credit, which supplies the capital for African business and calls entrepreneurs to account. This capitalisation of financial resources extends by analogy to the community-based capitalisation of natural resources. Similarly, in this context investing in business is effectively an investment based on solidarity – it benefits society. Accountability to their community of investors is not enough, though: companies also need to meet the Financial needs of their wider community – for example by financing a small business, the purchase of a taxi, education, providing assistance to orphans, etc. – in line with the principle of wealth redistribution. The business should also help to maintain social cohesion: because it has its roots, its financial, relational and cultural capital, within the society, it bears a responsibility for this society in return. Redistribution of employment within the community is an example of this: relational hiring – recruiting from within the wider ‘family’ – is an expression of solidarity. By taking everyone’s needs into account the company disadvantages no one, and in the process helps to maintain a kind of social stability. The fact that a company is present and rooted in its community builds trust in its economic relationships. In this way the life of the business is governed by co-existing codes that are implicit and explicit, oral and written, traditional and modern (Box).


Community conflict resolution

In the African subsidiary of a multinational group, and in African companies in general, informal power centres co-exist alongside the hierarchical organisation structure. These traditional mediators, unlike the representatives of trade unions, do not feature in the companies’ organisation charts. Nor do they necessarily occupy important roles within the subsidiary or the company – if indeed they are actually employed there. Their reputation derives from the role they occupy Inside and outside the subsidiary or business, in the communities – civil, religious, ethnic, etc. – that connect company employées with external stakeholders. Their role is to lend legitimacy to management decisions and also to regulate social relationships within and outside the subsidiary or the business, by ensuring that customary rights are respected, with a view to maintaining social cohesion within the community. Opening up this arena for médiation helps to create a family atmosphere within the company and prevents social conflicts which could cost the company a great deal in terms of time and money. Against this background, a company that takes an issue to tribunals is effectively demonstrating its inability to résolve conflicts internally. National laws are merely a last resort when a problem cannot be settled “within the family” in line with the customary practices applicable within the business.

As a result it is not always necessary to formalise contracts or agreements: relationships of trust, based on reciprocal obligations, encourage community-responsible practices. Operating in a way that challenges these customary practices can prove highly counter-productive.

Towards a hybridisation of CSR practices

In order to promote the growth of CSR in Africa it is vital to develop procedures for adapting Western CSR requirements to African cultural and economic contexts, in collaboration with both African and Western managers working on the continent. For international groups based in Africa this means taking greater account of African modes of organisation, business administration and management – so that they are not asking their employees to act in a way that is inconsistent with their beliefs. At the same time it is important that local economic and institutional players adopt a proactive role in promoting Africa’s responsible corporate practices internationally. Very often there is still a lack of awareness with respect to the value of local practices. Only an intercultural understanding of both international and local practices will enable the different modes of organisation, administration and management to be combined in the most effective way.

This process could be supported by a programme of targeted initiatives. The priority here will of course be to raise awareness among managers of international businesses based in Africa
of the need to hybridise African and Western responsibility practices. Yet Africa’s diasporas also have an important role to play in the transmission of Western responsibility practices in Africa and of African responsibility practices in the West. A more intercultural approach to the ISO 26000 standard should also be defined. This work of revising standards should draw on the expertise of African and Western researchers specialising in CSR and interculturality in Africa. Finally it would be helpful to raise awareness of progress in the field of CSR across African civil
society – by generating coverage in the African and Western media of intercultural and CSR initiatives in the business world.

Recognising diverse cultural approaches to CSR and recognising the existence of an African CSR – though it is not labelled in the same way – opens up a pathway to a different, more effective and more intercultural way of organising and managing businesses in Africa (whether subsidiaries or local businesses). Rather than thinking only of modernising African responsibility practices, these practices should be viewed as a source of inspiration – yielding a deeper understanding of economies in the developing world, where economic relationships are often founded on ethical values based on trust.

Footnotes :

¹ This article draws extensively on a publication by the author and Urbain Kiswend-Sida Yaméogo (2011) entitled Les responsabilités sociétales des entreprises en Afrique francophone [Corporate social responsibility in francophone Africa] (see References).
² There has been notable progress in Morocco (CSR accreditation created by the CGEM – General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises), Senegal (a dedicated forum held annually in Dakar since 2008) and Cameroon (forum staged by the Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun – Cameroon employers’ association – in 2011).

References / Yaméogo, U.K.-S., 2007. L’Émergence de la responsabilité sociale des entreprises en Afrique : état des lieux, enjeux et perspectives, université Paris-XII Créteil. // Wong, A. et Yaméogo, U.K.-S., 2011. Les responsabilités sociétales des entreprises en Afrique francophone – Le livre blanc, éditions Charles-Léopold Mayer.