SR article

7. Choices in doing business once again


Let me pick up on the last slide from the former lecture. There we had the distinction between three levels, the state, civil society and individuals/companies. The question now is: are companies only dependent on the higher levels of civil society and government, so that they cannot be successful if their environment does not change? Or can they be factors of change themselves and influence their environment in such a way that it becomes more conducive to healthy business. A socially responsible business should follow precisely this course.

First there is a tremendous opportunity for an enterprise in building on its internal strength. This is the often forgotten issue of the management style that can make a enormous difference. It is possible to create a distinctive business culture in contrast to the environment at large, if necessary. Earlier on I stated that employees should not just be bossed around as functions in the machinery, but that an organization is more efficient if their professionalism is respected and promoted. They are not only subordinates, but also equals and partners. They are both. To recognize that means to create commitment and cultivate responsibility. Committed persons can represent the enterprise also when the boss is not in the office. Such commitment is also enhanced if there is an atmosphere of belongingness and recognition. In addition, the workforce can be trained in cooperation, dialogue, proper work ethic, due planning, precision in labor – such training is necessary especially if the workforce comes from a situation of joblessness. Enterprises shouldn’t take it for granted that they merely reflect the values, or supposed values, of the society at large. Often the society itself is in a period of crisis, because the old agricultural community values do not function anymore sufficiently, but more civil society-like values are also not in place. Often low income societies get the worst from both sides: the negative points of the old traditions remain (such as clientelism) and from the West only the most the superficial ones are taken over (such as the everybody for himself mentality of neoliberalism).

The examples are there of businesses that survive thanks to a more inclusive and strong management style in the sense discussed. Such businesses have an impact on their environment as well. Together with NGOs from all sorts they can gradually build up a civil society of open networks, in which business partners exercise partnerships and trust without relying on gated networks and giftgiving and buying trust. As already stated, often, almost always, African enterprises are in between two moral and institutional systems. System I, the system of lifelong solidarity and communitarianism is also the system of particularist treatment and clientelism. In that system cooperation and trust has to be bought via gated networks. The other system, System II, is the moral and institutional system everybody is craving for, but difficult to establish and maintain. Instead of labeling System I with the name “corruption” I recommend to bring the dilemma in the open as an unavoidable trade-off. Sometimes you may need to buy trust by giving an allowance or “a little something” to get things done, and sometimes you also have to show family solidarity, sure. But where should it stop if the business is also to survive? Where should giftgiving be replaced by playing by the rules and by anonymous trust, under due law-enforcement? Instead of being stuck in a stalemate of naming and blaming, public morals and the public debate would win if it is recognized that every enterprise and institution has to steer its way in this force field between System I and System II. If that is done explicitly a lot of hypocrisy can be done away with. At present publicly everybody speaks the talk of transparency, non-corruption, integrity, equal access etc., while everybody knows that he also has to satisfy a friend or family member from the project money or company budget. It is a better solution to discuss how much trust has to be bought in particularist relations, and how much mutual trust can be offered for free, under the umbrella of strong institutions. Such institutions have to be built up in the process of transition. But you cannot reach the goal all at once. It is just like roads: if they are not there you have to make them yourself. But it is cheaper if you can use roads already made.

In a three-pronged strategy of change, not only individual enterprises and civil society, but also the state has to play its role by becoming more universalist and accountable, creating transparency, rule of law and equal access, enforcing contracts etc. etc. In all developing countries this process of change and transition is continuously the object of political controversy. This controversy is not imposed on those countries from the outside. It is already there within those societies. By the way: did the West solve these issues sufficiently? It doesn’t look like. Inequalities have never been as big as they are now.

Which brings us to the question: how can the old time traditions of lifelong solidarity, communalism, family, village and clan belongingness, be integrated in this process of modernization? This is not only a question of the developing nations, but as much the question of all questions also for the rest. Not only the rejection of Western society by fundamentalists, but also the reduction of the Western society to consumerism and moral egoism is a problem that cries for a solution. In a society in which everybody is on his own&), in the end everybody is alone, and people get crazy. They lack the force field of a real community.


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