Last week I was invited to be a speaker at a two days International Conference on CSR, organised by the University of Central Punjab at the PC Hotel, Lahore. I was a little taken back by the invitation, as I am not an expert on CSR. As such, I rang up Dr Shahid Mahmood, who was the Conference convenor and explained that my expertise was consumer protection and citizen's rights and not CSR.
I was pleasantly surprised when he informed me that he felt that as consumers are major stakeholders in matters relating to the way corporations behave, their point of view relating to CSR should also be heard. I warned him that some of my views on such matters do not conform to the general perception of CSR and was more consumer-oriented.
However, he insisted that I participate in the Conference and requested me to send him an extract of my paper. As Helpline Trust had already organised two CSR Award functions, which were based on "Putting the consumer first', all the information I needed was easily available.
So I dug into my computer, searched for my CSR files, wrote up a paper and left for Lahore on the three o'clock PIA flight on Monday. I used to be a regular visitor to Lahore for Basant, but when the kite flying turned into a 'blood support'; it lost its charm. As such, I was returning to this exciting city after many years and was looking forward of catching up with some of my 'Lahori' friends.
Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab was the Chief Guest, to which Shaukat Tarin, Adviser to PM on Finance and Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Special Assistant to PM on Social Sector, were also invited. Surprisingly the Governor attended the conference as per schedule, but both ST and SWA failed to do so.
The various sessions of the conference were to be Chaired by Sartaj Aziz, former Finance and Foreign Minister, Dr. Mohan La I Agrawal, Director, Jaypee Business School. India, Khadeeja Balkhi, a CSR Sustainability Consultant, who had also prepared our CSR questioner for the awards and other experts. As expected, the Indian delegation failed to attend the Conference as our FO refused to issue them visas.
The Conference included company presentations, followed by a long list of Key Note speakers and speakers, which included Senator S. M. Zafar and Dr. Hafiz A. Pasha, Dean School of Social Sciences and Former Adviser to the PM for Finance & Economic Affairs. I was asked to present a paper on 'CSR and Putting the Consumer First' and to Chair one of the sessions.
In his speech, even the Governor, Punjab endorsed the need for CSR, but however, I was taken aback, when the governor disagreed with Dr. Pasha's comments that greed was the cause of the current financial turmoil in the world. The Governor's point of view was that greed was the main driving force for business and there was nothing wrong with it.
I suppose, we are all entitled to our own views, but from what I understand, one of the fundamental principals of CSR is ethical business practices and I am sure that 'greed' can not be termed 'ethical' in any form. In fact, from my point of view, greed is the root of all evil, especially business.
On the whole, the two today conference was well planned, but the there were too many speakers, as such the last session of the first day had to be carried over to the next day, which was at the Conference Hall of the University of Central Punjab.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The university was located in the heart of the city, but once you entered the gates, it seemed that you had entered a park. There were spacious lawns, red brick buildings and an academic atmosphere, with students of both genders relaxing and chatting under the shades of old, ageing trees.
Another surprising thing that I noticed was that all the students were dressed in casual western dresses and there was not a single girl in a 'hijab' or burqua. However, I am told that the dress code in the Punjab University is quite the opposite and is strictly Islamic, as the campus is under the control of Jamat-e-Islamia.
My paper was based on the view that CSR is not just about what corporations do to help the community, which is of course very commendable, but also what they do for their consumers, in other words, do they put the consumers first and provide a quality product at an affordable price to them?
My paper highlighted the relationship between corporations and their consumers, who frankly provide the 'merks and perks' the CEOs, executives and the employees of a corporation enjoy, through their patronage of their products. 'In developed countries, consumers are kings, as they can make or break a brand. As such, corporations create 'brand loyalty' by ensuring that they provide safe, reliable and quality products at a fair price to the consumers, because if they do not, the consumer will switch loyalty and buy a different brand'.
However, if they rob Paul, which in this case is the consumer, to pay Peter, the community, at the cost of compromising on the quality of the product or charging a unjustified price, then you are violating the trust and the loyalty that the consumer has placed in you and your brand.
A good corporate citizen offers superior value to customers by embracing economic and social responsibilities. Consumers enjoy the benefits of this commitment directly, because a good corporation treats them fairly and continuously strives to satisfy their changing needs. Companies must have a sense of responsibility towards society and their consumers from which they earn their profits. Their executives must be men of ethics, with strong social commitments, who can transform their ideas and vision of corporate ethics into corporate responsibility.
As such, corporate responsible behavior is beyond the letter of law and is towards a spirit of trust, respect for the rules of trade, environment, to promote sustainable development programs and to avoid illicit operations like hoarding, misleading advertisements, bribery, tax evasion, etc.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, except for a few, there is a general lack of Corporate Citizenship towards consumers and most of them just believe in "lip service and cosmetic contributions" which project their organisations or their products.
I pointed out that socially responsible manufacturers must be encouraged to fulfil their obligations to their consumers and set an example, which others could follow. I stated that it is the moral obligation of corporations, who believe in GMP and are committed in providing quality products to the consumers and to observe a code of conduct in manufacturing, advertising and marketing. If Socially Responsible Corporations do not set an example, then we will end up with a "free for all" situation. A sad example is our markets, where over 40% of the products are either sub-standard, adulterated or counterfeit.
As for the city of Lahore, credit must be given to the City Government, who have converted its noisy, smoked filled and congested streets into pleasant wide boulevards, lined with trees, parks and fountains. The noise and smoke pollution has been greatly reduced and there are hardly any traffic jams or hooting and speeding buses. But more about this beautiful, elegant city and Cuckoo's some other time.