Wednesday, December 27, 2017

SDGs are Transformative. But what about CSR Investments? 

Often when we are sitting passively listening to others talk in a conference there is a certain sense of De ja vu ... You feel you have heard the speaker speak earlier on the same issues. I did not frankly expect much from the UN Global Compact’s conference on SDGs  organized at Leela hotel in Mumbai on 8th December 2017. But I was in for a pleasant surprise as there were some insightful presentations and sharing which were quite enriching.

Just as I was thinking that the conversation is totally taking place from the point of view of the corporates,  there comes on stage Nisha Agrawal, Chief Executive Officer, Oxfam. If I say she was passionate it would be an understatement. I suddenly felt as if I had got an opportunity to express my views on the stage.

I have been witness to the changes in the approach of corporates to engagement with social  development  issues after the CSR guidelines were formulated in 2013. While it is good that some money is being earmarked for socially useful work, I often remember the socially useful and productive work (SUPW) assignments of my son when I see the CSR engagements of some of the corporates. True there are some amazing corporate initiatives but I continue to feel they are not as many as we would like.

Nisha in her brilliant presentation had analysed the short comings of the CSR as it is being practised today in an objective manner articulating the issues sharply. I am sure many of us, particularly those working in the area of rights based initiatives, community empowerment and gender advocacy, would endorse her stand completely.To put it briefly, these are the points that she made.

·     One third of the money, according to her, goes for education. A major chunk of the remaining money goes to sanitation programmes. Has the fact that these are the two programmes which are personally driven by the Prime Minister influenced the choice of CSR investments of the corporates? What about the myriad other issues?

·         The CSR guidelines also encourage and promote CSR investments in the project and field areas of the corporates. Inspite of the consistent good work that many NGOs are doing in remote areas or areas where there are no corporates, they are facing a huge fund crunch often forcing them to cut down their activities. These are the communities which are left out of the ambit of development. Focus on backyard investment leaves many critical areas and issues  out of the CSR investments.

·     The requirements of reporting and monitoring as well as Return on Investment indicators has made it easy to measure service delivery projects popular with the CSR departments, often overlooking issues related to sustainability and people’s participation.

·     This in essence means advocacy initiatives for gender equality, women’s rights and rights of the other marginalised communities are totally overlooked.

·     Policy research is yet another important area which is starved of funds.

·     Most of the corporates have established their own foundations and are channelising their CSR funds through them. This is undermining the role of civil society organisations and NGOs as the watchdogs, the catalysts and the change makers.

·     The CSR agenda keeps changing at the corporate level every few years putting hurdles in long term investments in a particular sector or a particular issue.

·     An off shoot of this is the short term funding that is granted to NGOs for a couple of years with insistence on measurable impact.

Nisha very forcefully argued that this approach to CSR goes against the spirit of SDGs which are about transformational change, which does not happen with short term service delivery projects. We cannot agree more.


Gender equality is a cross cutting SDG which should be at the core of achieving many of the other SDGs. Gender equality and a society free of gender based violence is possible only when we change mindsets, mainstream gender sensitivity into institutions, policies and programmes, create champions of the cause across sectors and bring about a transformative change that would create a culture and ethos of inclusiveness. These require investments as well. They require long term investments.  We need greater commitment, support and engagement of corporates to make the above happen because a peaceful, inclusive and egalitarian society makes good sense for business as well.

Written by Dr. A.L. Sharada, Director, Population First