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Nowadays the concept of CSR is becoming increasingly widespread and is endorsed by a growing number of economic actors. Yet awareness levels in sub-Saharan Africa remain low, and few businesses implement formalised CSR initiatives. Encouraged, supported and adapted to local realities, CSR could be an effective lever for sustainable development.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an emerging concept in Africa but awareness levels among most of the continent’s business leaders and executives remain low. According to the broad définition shared by the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the European Commission and the international standardsetting organisation ISO, CSR refers to a company’s contribution to the challenges of sustainable development and its responsibility with respect to the environmental and social (E&S) impacts of its operations. Overall, CSR defines a company’s responsibility towards its stakeholders: this involves taking  hareholders’ expectations into account, but also the needs of a wider group of actors – employees, customers, suppliers, financers, public authorities, local populations,and so on.

CSR covers multiple spheres of operation: at societal level, relationships with customers, suppliers and civil society; in labour and employment practices, fighting discrimination, working conditions, occupational health and safety, and staff management; and at environmental level, combating climate change, the economic management of resources, biodiversity,  reventing pollution and nuisance, etc.

In the face of this multidimensional issue the ultimate aim is to re-think the whole business around the concept of sustainable development, incorporating E&S concerns within its global strategy and operations. This is what makes CSR fundamentally different from corporate sponsorship initiatives undertaken more independently.

CSR is based mainly on the voluntary engagement of businesses which are looking to operate in a more responsible way. It is often developed under pressure from civil society and the public authorities, but is also driven by companies’ own ambitions and their sense of how it will benefit them. And indeed, although CSR may involve an upfront investment – impact studies, audits,  accreditations, mobilising internal human and material resources, specific investments, etc. – it also delivers significant business benefits: competitive advantages, improved relationships with stakeholders and enhanced reputation, higher levels of employée engagement, economies achieved through improved   resource utilisation (lower water and energy consumption, waste reduction, recycling, etc.), for example. For all these reasons, CSR is now endorsed by increasing numbers of economic actors and is steadily spreading across all the world’s continents – including across Africa.

A host of international CSR initiatives

The concept of CSR came into being in the United States in the 1950s but only spread to European companies during the 1990s. It has developed through the initiative of  intergovernmental and regional organisations which have published guidelines and standards, establishing a comprehensive CSR reference toolkit for the private sector. Over the last two decades, CSR strategies have evolved towards increasingly standardised frameworks.

The OECD Guidelines, which have been in force since 1976 and were revised in 2011¹, are the primary international reference Framework on CSR matters. These non-binding  recommendations, addressed to companies by the 42 signatory governments, deal with human rights, employment and industrial relations, the environment, fighting corruption, etc. Their key distinguishing feature is that they provide an implementation mechanism via a network of National Contact Points (NCPs) which receive complaints and can impose  sanctions in every signatory country. The UN’s Global Compact, launched in 2000,  ncompasses ten principles in the fields of human rights, labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption measures. Today it has more than 8,000 signatories including 6,000 companies in 135 countries. Alongside these frameworks establishing the principles of CSR there are international standards companies can use as a support structure for implementing them. The most high-profile of these standards relating to CSR is ISO 26000, which provides guidance on how organisations can operate in a socially responsible way with respect to governance, human rights, labour relations and working conditions, the environment, and community relations – among other matters. This is a non-binding standard and is therefore not intended or appropriate for certification – unlike other standards which concentrate on more specific areas, such as ISO 14001, which defines the criteria for an environmental management system or ISO 18001, which establishes accreditation standards for occupational health and safety management systems. Development finance institutions have also developed standards applicable to companies and to the activities they finance. Many of them currently use the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s Performance Standards as their benchmark – as do the commercial banks that have adopted the Equator Principles. These represent one of the most rigorous approaches to CSR practices, covering issues such as preventing pollution, conserving the environment, labour and working conditions, as well as extending beyond this to address often under- regulated issues such community health, safety and security, land acquisition, the resettlement of displaced communities and defending the rights of indigenous peoples. There are also specialist reference systems for reporting attainments with respect to CSR, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which provides a standard reporting framework for non-financial data for the private sector, along with guidelines for developing this reporting. Finally, all these international initiatives are supplemented at national level by state policies encouraging economic actors to undertake CSR programmes  – mainly in European countries – and by business networks dedicated to promoting good CSR practices.

The issues around CSR in Africa

CSR still has a relatively low profile in Africa, whether among public authorities or business leaders, and few companies implement CSR policies in line with the international definitions. In general terms, too, Africa’s predominant culture is one of corporate sponsorship rather than CSR. It is very common, for example, for companies to receive requests for social investments in communities at times of natural disasters or in the fields of healthcare or education. Where it does exist, CSR is often the prerogative of major multinationals or limited to satellite programmes which do not as yet sufficiently impact the way companies manage their operations overall. Even so it is difficult to accurately assess the current state of play for CSR in Africa today, partly because the concept itself is a relatively new introduction on the continent and because many African  businesses are setting up CSR initiatives without formalising them as such.

The last few years have seen an increase in CSR activities in Africa, a trend in which international funding agencies and multinationals have played a substantial part. A growing number of initiatives are emerging in the field of CSR training: for example, the IFDD (Institut de la Francophonie pour le Développement Durable – the Francophonie institute for sustainable development) and ENAP, the National School of Public Administration in Quebec, are developing a sustainable development and organisational social responsibility programme (under the French acronym PIDDRSO) which is delivering training sessions in Francophone Africancountries. The environmental sciences institute (Institut des Sciences de  l’Environnement, ISE) at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, supported by Initiative RSE Sénégal, has developed a Master’s level CSR degree programme. Institut Afrique RSE – the specialist consultancy which supported the creation of Kilimandjaro, a network of African experts in CSR and sustainable development – regularly organises CSR training events in African countries. Other key developments are the development of several labels (Morocco) and charters (Senegal, see box 1) by the private sector.


Senegal’s CSR and sustainable development charter

Launched in 2012 by Initiative RSE Sénégal and the Conseil National du Patronat (Senegalese employers’ federation), Senegal’s “Charte RSE et Développement Durable” (CSR and sustainable development charter) was developed by eleven companies from a number of different sectors (mining, manufacturing, construction/civil engineering, banking, the hotel industry, etc.) taking into account both their shared concerns and the sustainable development challenges facing Senegal. The charter defines seven minimum commitments every company in Senegal should make, whatever its size, in order to comply with its CSR policy guidelines. The first commitment covers to the need to define and share – internally and with stakeholders – corporate values relating to ethical principles and good governance. Signatories also undertake to preserve natural resources and reduce pollution levels; they must support the development of a green economy in Senegal. For example, several signatory companies (Simpa, Eiffage Sénégal, Cbao Attijariwafa bank, Neurotech) have subcontracted the collection and recycling of their waste to small local businesses. Companies signing the charter must help to combat youth unemployment and promote the formalisation of their sectors – two key concerns in Africa – by implementing local purchasing policies and prioritising contracts with micro-enterprises and SMEs which are themselves committed to CSR and have the potential to create jobs. They must observe the principle of legality with respect to working conditions and human rights issues. They must also prioritise a community engagement that extends beyond corporate sponsorship by getting involved in high-impact CSR projects designed to deliver lasting change. Finally, signatory companies must provide fully transparent reporting of initiatives undertaken in the CSR sphere and publish documentation evidencing their achievements on a regular basis.

Though still limited in scope these initiatives are nonetheless encouraging, opening up new and promising possibilities for successfully tackling some of the development challenges facing the African continent. Working in conjunction with public policies, CSR initiatives can for example help to overcome the under-employment of young graduâtes by linking existing professional training provision more effectively with pathways into work (Box 2). Even if few of them have formalised it, African companies can also help to improve the social protection system – through their role as employers, in particular. Moreover, the spread of CSR can only reinforce the battle against biodiversity and resource erosion (deforestation, monoculture, over-exploitation of fishing resources, mining, etc.).


The Thiès green economy business incubator

CERSET (which stands for the Thiès Centre of Excellence in CSR) was established in 2013 to facilitate the implementation of pioneering CSR and sustainable development projects in the Thiès region of Senegal. Supported by CERSET, a collective of public and private partners from education, professional training and research came up with the idea for ITEV (Incubateur de Thiès pour l’Économie Verte – the Thiès green economy incubator), a business incubator specialising in the agroforestry sector. The incubator will provide young graduates with assistance and a supportive environment as they start up their businesses. The incubator will connect recent graduates, existing small businesses and major companies undertaking CSR programmes. The incubator’s users will learn to work in a network with other stakeholders while absorbing the values that drive CSR. Biodiversity research will be a key priority, as well as establishing effective connections between training, research and the market. ITEV’s backers include major companies such as Wartsila West Africa, Eiffage Sénégal, Grande Côte Opérations, Sonatel and Blaise Diagne International Airport. Their role will be to facilitate the training and support of local entrepreneurs operating in or close to their production areas and/or working within their supply chain. ITEV will be a source of income for local communities, an opportunity to enhance youth employability, a contribution to plant biodiversity and to the development of an environmentally beneficial agroforestry sector – while also benefiting the partner companies. CSR has the potential to lay the foundation of a public/private partnership dedicated to promoting self-employment among young people, the production of a range of plant species for regenerating land areas degraded by major companies, and the use of these plants for food, cosmetic and medical purposes.

Obstacles, challenges and opportunities

Conceived in the countries of the global North – primarily in Anglo-Saxon countries – CSR is the outcome of a long process of evolution involving stakeholders who have successfully transformed their power relationships into a concerted programme of action. It calls for a structured business environment in which each individual actor has attained a level of organisation and visibility that enables them to play their moderating or regulating role – which is only rarely the case on the African continent. CSR requires the engagement of a critical mass of economic actors capable of translating this policy programme into concrete initiatives, creating a ripple effect across the whole economic fabric. The importance of the informal sector in Africa makes this kind of policy difficult to implement on a large scale. A key preliminary to the growth of CSR is a drive by public authorities to promote it, regulate it and facilitate consultations between stakeholders. Unfortunately few governments have adopted appropriate political frameworks for CSR and private-sector organisations – where they exist – lack sufficient influence over public authorities to encourage them to adopt measures favouring businesses with virtuous CSR practices. The standard fiscal provisions in many African countries do not include any special measures in favour of CSR. Another key challenge is the ability of African governments to impose standards on companies and to monitor their implementation effectively, especially when the companies are located in regions far from central administrations. Nonetheless it should be noted that governments are showing a growing interest in this area and are gradually adapting their administrations and their legislative production to address these challenges. One of the main obstacles impeding the spread of CSR in Africa is still a widespread lack of awareness about the concept and its benefits. It is important, therefore, that training and awareness- raising programmes are developed in this area, targeting all the various actors concerned. Above all, though, it is vital to adapt CSR practices to African sociocultural realities and to the specific characteristics of the local business environment. As it is, international norms and standards are still perceived by the vast majority of business leaders as overcomplicated. Using the guidelines of the international reference systems as a base, it is vital to construct tools appropriate to the economic context of each African country. While the fundamental principles of CSR are universal, the practices relating to the central issues of CSR must necessarily be adapted to each country’s customs and environment. The key challenge today is to translate the founding principles of our rich traditional African cultures (group ethos,  contracts based on trust, hospitality, solidarity) into the principles of CSR.

Africa’s economic performances and trends, combined with its demographic vitality, point towards a brighter future for CSR on the continent. Socially responsible investment models are beginning to spread widely in Africa, thanks to initiatives by major companies in the mining, infrastructure, agro-industry and ecotourism sectors. These practices often involve high value-added subsidiary businesses which have a strong ripple effect on the local economy. The higher visibility of these initiatives could help to trigger a wider awareness of CSR in Africa and promote its development. Yet CSR cannot become deeply rooted unless businesses and local organisations can individually and collectively develop their own tools for disseminating its practices, based on the founding principles and realities of their societies.


¹ New provisions relating to human rights were introduced in 2011, bringing the supply chain within companies’ sphere of responsibility.