It isn't easy being a pro-market person in Nepal. Columnists on op-eds of the vernacular press routinely equate markets with a few big private businesses run by 'greedy capitalists'. These fat cats cut corners, exploit workers, waste natural resources, bribe bureaucrats, fool customers, and are lackeys of those in power.
To this drumbeat, add years of socialist governance, communist ranting, and domestic conglomerates that treated banks as slush funds. Is it surprising that the image of markets as playpens of a few big bad business houses is boldly etched on an average Nepali's psyche?
This is one reason why there's little hue and cry when businessmen get beaten up, when they are forced to donate and when, because of strikes, they find it to impossible to, well, mind their own business. Indeed, in the court of public opinion, a Maoist can get a second chance, but a businessman remains guilty of all real and imaginary charges until proven otherwise.
In times ahead, that perception is going to make it difficult for our business communities to explain what competitive markets, of which they make up a part, effectively facilitate: provisions of goods, services, jobs, taxes, investment opportunities, and increases in levels of innovation, trust, transparency and accountability. But that difficulty poses a problem and an opportunity.
The problem is that with the Maoists in government, we are likely to hear, as we did from Hisila Yami last week, the usual more-concerned-about-Nepali-than-thou rhetoric against privatisation and foreign investments. The opportunity is that now is the time for businesses to stop being defensive, and start putting their good sides on public display. Not only does this help them do good ( i.e. restore the very purpose of their existence to serve customers, suppliers, employees, and shareholders) but also do well (i.e. earn competitive advantages).
One way a Nepali business can honestly and confidently display its good side is by being serious about how it carries out its corporate social responsibilities. CSR here does not mean diverting a part of a company's profits into pet projects designed to make the CEO and his wife look smart in lifestyle magazines. Nor does it mean doing generic \'feel good\' activities by throwing money at charities and NGOs. The latest thinking on CSR is that it's about creating a shared value between a business and society in such a way that the activity undertaken is meaningful to society and tangibly valuable to the business.
Viewed this way, leading Nepali businesses may need to rethink how they practice CSR (see interviews below). It is, for instance, a complementary activity for a car distributor to engage in ways to reduce road fatalities. But it's hard to see what tangible shared value really comes out of a well-intentioned bank supporting a well-run hospital.
Likewise, for a Kathmandu-based supermarket, paying for scholarships in a remote district makes sense. That's because most salespersons in that supermarket come from that district. But another financial institution presenting a scattershot list of CSR activities indicates that unfocused enthusiasm has won over rigorous thinking. What if banks got involved in raising the levels of financial literacy of NGOs and charities that do good work but can't balance their books or don't know how to do more with less money?
Nepali businesses have long been defined by others as exploitative and extractive. Though true in large part, it's time businesses took charge to start changing that definition. Reaching out to complementary social spaces to do CSR activities is one way our businesses can help restore our faith in the power of competitive markets to do good for more Nepalis than any of the alternative ideology currently hogging much print space in our newspapers.
CEO, Vaidya's Organisation of Industries and
CSR should be an integral part of every business and should not depend on the profits. In our tea estates in Dhankuta, we produce certified organic tea, 70 percent of our workers are women and we have a welfare fund run by them. At Toyota we are starting a new pedestrian safety program because we realise that the number of road accidents in Kathmandu is increasing. Our staff will be directly involved, and will put in six hours a week.
CEO, Nabil Bank
CSR is an evolutionary concept. When a corporate house is in primary stages, its managers are most concerned about making profits so social responsibilities are not thought about. Nabil Bank supports health, education and sports. In health we support Tilganga Eye Centre's glaucoma initiative. In education we have supported kids from 8-10 grades at Mary Ward School where girls from usually low income background study. In sports we have set up Nabil Three Star where we encourage young kids to play. We are involved in issues that are closer to home. We assess need and are careful while choosing our partners.
Min Bahadur Gurung
Owner, Bhatbhateni Supermarket
When Bhatbhateni supermarket was being built, the roads were narrow, so we made them broader. We renovated the temple next to it that was in ruins. We helped flood victims during the 1994 and 1997 floods in my native Khotang. We are planning to be involved in a project to take drinking water to some 2,000 households in a small village in Darchula. I have personally been involved during the design and implementation of the project and so far we have been able to do it ourselves without support from anyone.
CEO, Nepal Investment Bank Limited
We have a deep commitment to social upliftment, sustainable economic development and to the creation of a good working environment. Our most recent CSR event was the 'Run for Fun' 2007 Annual Marathon, which raised Rs 5,000,000 for the Katmandu Valley Preservation Trust. NIBL has provided monetary support of over Rs 1.2 million for the renovation and restoration of several temples, we assist the Heart Foundation, provide monetary support to Bal Mandir and Pashupati Bridhashram, and Nepal Apanga Sangha, Khagendra Nava Jeevan Kendra to help disabled people. We have helped the UNHCR mission to Nepal in their work in improving the living conditions of Refugees.
CSR is instrumental in generating goodwill towards the bank and in helping us to brand and position our corporate name in the business world.Shekar Golchha
Director, Golchha Organisation
Every corporate house should make CSR a priority, and it is at the top of our list. We are supporting two hospitals in Biratnagar, we help charities, and we have set up welfare funds within our group. We don't use our social contributions as a marketing tool, which is why we don't make too much noise about it.