To Whom Are We Serving?

Since I started working in the Corporate Social Responsibility field, and afterward in my path in social entrepreneurship and inclusive business, I have been aware of an urgent need common to all practitioners: to be alert and not allow presumption of good faith take us to dark places where judgment becomes blurry.

It´s easy to fall into an activism based on good faith. Undoubtedly, there are good practices flourishing everywhere. But having a black and white perspective limits us, and doesn´t allow us to see ambivalence and contradiction which are present in the social practice of any organizational and personal life.

The reason for and the purpose of actions are topics that have always captured my attention, even more since the illusory neutrality surrounding everything we do became clear to me. For that reason, this article by Patricia Legarreta, in which she asks about the limits of participant observation and the forms in which the anthropology methodologies become “instruments of control and suppression” had a profound effect on me.

Her article is provocative and harsh. It invites us, the people working with this kind of methodologies, to ask ourselves, directly and personally, about the implication of the research and work that we do. Patricia´s article refers to investigations such as impact evaluations and mapping of actors and of forms of social organization in a territory. These are commissioned and used by the State and business to exert control over territories, often, in the interest of “suppressing and dispelling the popular movements”. It is particularly serious, says Patricia, because there are not enough investigations about business elites, or the organization patterns of business cartels. In this way, “today anthropology serves the elites more than the dominated”.

Her article invites us to reflect upon the use given to investigations done for businesses, and to which objectives they serve. Those of us who do consultancy and research about business performance, independently or from an organization, must take it personally and ask ourselves: What are we doing this for? How are the knowledge and tools that we give to business utilized?

I´m interested in businesses (newly established or in transformation) which are looking to generate positive impacts in society. That´s the reason why I´m mainly focused in one particular kind: inclusive, social or environmental businesses. The last 10 years I have mapped inclusive business cases, actors of social innovation, and I have conducted qualitative research asking about business practices that better achieve social impact. I have wondered if inclusive business really achieves the empowerment in communities, if it is a good choice to promote social entrepreneurship in the delivery of services related to human rights, and what tensions appear between actors involved in rural development projects.

In each process, I have tried to be fully aware of my assumptions and logics, overt  and hidden, and what I choose to see and what to ignore in my search for answers. I have learnt this way that it is good to start from a basis of good faith, but it is necessary to develop dispassionate points of view, where the acknowledgement of conflict, contradiction, the exercise of power and multiple rationalities have a place.

Hereafter I share three ideas potentially useful to other professionals and practitioners who do research and consultancy, who ask themselves about the implications of their job:

We do not allow focus in technical issues to take humanity away from us. 

Besides addressing specific questions related to business, with our job we help to build and validate arguments, and promote ideas and narratives which could be potentially used in other contexts. It is not a minor responsibility, and should be recognized as such. Following recommendations made by consultants, people are fired, organizational structures are transformed, programs are cut and new action plans are created. It is imperative to identify consequences of our own recommendations and offer transitions and softening pathways when it is required. We need to remember to whom we are serving: society as a whole and not just our client!

There is a harsh reality beyond good practices

Although there are some relevant topics in business performance which are not acknowledged and therefore not studied enough, we can´t ignore them. In Colombia there are at least two recent examples of corporate corruption: Toilet paper and diapers cartel and Odebretch´s. These experiences are noteworthy events and give us a clear idea of potential business bipolarity and divided self*, as well as interests and rationalities present in the business world. Good/bad and ethical/non-ethical possibilities are included in the repertoire of business action. Acknowledge it and not be naïve should be the rule.

Social does not always mean social

Working in the field of social impact business should always mean a major commitment with such impact. Not because a business considers itself a “business for social impact” we should have an acritical perspective of its performance. Building new forms in economy requires a reflection upon the day-to-day decisions of social business, and the identification of the gaps between the new model and the business as usual one. Boosting the new ways to do business, we could set the basis to overcome the current system in decline.

**The concept of divided self was used by Virginia Maurer in the article Corporate Social Responsibility and the «Divided Corporate Self»: The Case of Chiquita in Colombia», to explain the erratic corporate behavior of Chiquita in Colombia. Chiquita was involved in a scandal, because they payed FARC and “autodefensas” (paramilitary) to protect their plantations.

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