This blog post was produced by Scott Schaffer, who is a professor of sociology and a specialist in social ethics. Having worked on problems ranging from the ethics of large-scale social change to cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism and the ethics of development, Scott now brings his fifteen years of expertise to bear on issues of social responsibility, social terrain mapping, CSR assessment, and stakeholder engagement. He holds firm to the idea that value for all stakeholders derives from starting from a values-driven organisational strategy.

I’ve been reflecting on a number of recent events that have coalesced for me in a single idea that pertains directly to the responsibility of corporations to the societies in which they work. It’s not a new idea, nor necessarily a radical one. But it seems to be one that has faded from our collective memory, and is definitely one that needs to be recalled.

Event one: I recently took my first trip to Cuba – and not just to Cuba, but to a resort in Cuba (something I swore I would never do). Cayo Santa Maria is one of the most recent areas of the island to be developed for tourism, and is certainly one of the most beautiful, with crystal clear waters, an abundance of natural forests, and white sandy beaches. But as I enjoyed the amenities of this resort, I couldn’t help but wonder: How much has this emphasis on development for tourists helped the population of the area? I asked a number of people, ranging from a hotelier in a nearby town to one of the aquatics staff, this very question, and with what I imagine is a mix of party line and real observation, the response was unanimously that tourism had helped the region and its people. And it clearly did help the people who worked in the tourism sector: convertible peso tips flowed around like mad, and with the conversion rate to Cuban pesos at something like 28 to 1, it would be a great help. But the trip back to the airport, through the foothills of the Escambray Mountains and past orchards of banana and coconuts, made me wonder exactly how far that improvement in the standard of living actually went.

Event two: I had the good fortune this past week to attend a lecture given by the former prime minister of Tunisia, Hamadi al-Jebali, at the Munk Centre for Global Affairs.  Refreshing for a former prime minister, and certainly more candid than the Canadian ambassador to Tunisia’s prefatory remarks, al-Jebali’s talk was a combination of social history, political economy, and engineering lectures that gave a unique insight into the sociological factors that went into provoking Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. The prime minister paid special attention to what he called the “socioeconomic chasm” between the coastal and inland regions of the country, with most of the wealth being clustered along the Mediterranean; and he detailed the ways in which a proposed massive solar and wind farm in the Sahara Desert, with its connection to Italy and the provision of power to Europe, would be the great engine of economic development and would take care of this socioeconomic divide. Oddly, though, it seemed that as soon as the prime minister started speaking of the post-revolutionary period, all concern for political economy disappeared – and this was confirmed by the Canadian ambassador who noted that he was “surprised at how little debate about the economy takes place” in Tunisia.

Event three: In light of the end of the push to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations Development Program recently received the report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. That report, while pointing out that those eight goals should not be abandoned, points to what they call “five transformational shifts”: ending extreme poverty; fostering truly sustainable development; transforming economies for jobs and inclusive growth; fostering a spirit of partnership; and peace and accountability.

The intersection I promised at the start of this piece lies precisely in the third of these transformational shifts: the transformation of economies for jobs and inclusive growth. It is precisely this point that troubled me during my time in Cuba and provoked my questioning of the Tunisian prime minister. Economic growth necessarily must be inclusive. It must extend beyond simply the people who are employed in whatever particular sector of the economy is the favourite of international donors or represents the latest resource to be extracted. An economy must be diverse in order to flourish and have enough resources to satisfy the needs of its population. At the same time, though, careful attention must be paid to the distribution of those resources through work and other income supports. Dramatic inequities between regions or between sectors of the work force have to be mitigated in order to ensure both an ongoing social, political, and economic stability of the country and the “progressive realisation” of the rights of peoples.

It is in a commitment this principle of progressive realisation, as put forward by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), that I believe we have one element for making corporate social responsibility truly responsible. Article 2 of the Covenant requires that all parties “take steps… to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means…”. While legally speaking corporations are not parties to the ICESCR, that does not prevent one from making the claim that, ethically speaking, they ought to adhere to its principles and delineated rights. The rights in the Covenant are not that radical: decent work, equal pay for equal work, the right to join unions, and so on – all the rights that workers in Canada (generally) enjoy. To my mind, though, they are crucial to the realisation of corporate social responsibility, especially given the increasing offloading of development tasks to companies via public-private partnerships.

Corporations should not be promoting single-sector economies in the areas in which they work. Single-sector economies that are focused entirely on the activities of corporations provide no secure basis for the livelihoods of local populations, especially given that most extractive industry developments abroad have only a short lifespan, which can result in economic devastation to a region on that company’s departure. The dedication to the overall development of a local and regional economy in conjunction with the principles and rights set forth in the ICESCR not only meets the high bar for CSR, but also ensures that the socioeconomic chasms within which many corporations work can be bridged, and can go much further than anything else to maintaining and gaining an industry-wide “social licence to operate.” The progressive realisation of the economic rights of workers and populations in the regions in which Canadian corporations operate, in other words, can be the greatest factor in the improvement of corporate performance and the social responsiveness of corporations to their neighbours.