Interview conducted by Abeer Aslam, a Sustainability Practitioner in the Middle East in April 8th, 2013. Here are a few questions I’ve asked him to gain a further understanding of his take on the Middle East market for CSR.

Interview:

CSR and sustainability, trendy concepts in the Middle East market.  How do you see CSR being a part of the Middle East market? (Do you think the concept of CSR is a new concept for the region).

I think that CSR has been very much part of our culture. Being born and raised as Arab, I can confidently say that I understand the intricacies of the culture. One thing for sure, I can confidently say that CSR and sustainability practices are not new in the region.

From a religious perspective, if you look at the basis of the religion of Islam, you would realize that practices related to ethics, responsibility, transparency, integrity, charity, honesty and protection of the environment are all practices that are mentioned in the religion. From a historical perspective, the Bedouins, the locals of this region, had adapted their lifestyle to be the most sustainable. They grew up caring for their limited resources in a manner that sustained their livelihoods and protected their land for future generations. In addition to the old traditional ethical trading agreements and policies between tribes.  And this why, I myself see CSR not a current trend at all, but a life habit that has been embedded into our base line ethics and values in this part of the world.

Thanks for the historical insight. But with your comprehensive experience in the Middle East as a ‘corporate social responsibility expert’, what to see is CSR’s current standing in the local market?

From a business perspective, I feel there has been a natural evolution to the process of embedding CSR and sustainability in the business culture. Speaking of the current times, I think that the Western school of thought has created methodologies and frameworks based on our ethics and values and labeled them into processes and mechanisms that are currently being integrated into the business world. And this is not me being very patriotic, but it’s the reality that I read in the books of the Arab nations and Islamic practices. Back to nowadays business context, many companies are showing interest in those new framed practices and models. It first focused on a basic philanthropic, charitable approach, such as the Zakaat as a prevalent concept in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Few companies have then evolved from that stage and worked towards a more integrated and holistic approach by embedding sustainability performance indicators, within the core of their business, in order to create a shared value with all the concerned stakeholders. I here I have to mention that the global economic crisis has contributed a lot to that significant shift.    

Do you believe that the economic crisis has shaped current mentality towards a better implementation towards increasing investments in CSR and sustainability?

Back to 2008, companies that ranked higher in their CSR indexes were the least affected by the crisis. The economic crisis has greatly influenced and shaped the way we strategize our business models.  It thought us three main important lessons:

  • A paradigm shift changed from short term institutional organizational planning towards a more strategic and long-term vision.
  • Innovation stood out to be a key solution in order to optimize processes, cut operational costs and sustain businesses for future operations.
  • Businesses recognized that they cannot function independently and there was a greater need for inclusive behavior to create shared value with the surrounding community.

Taking the previous points into consideration, what would be an ideal method to educate the current market about those practices?

Current practice, summits and forums consist of people discussing ideas of social projects and initiatives. Currently, corporations and Governments don’t lack ideas about social projects, however they more so lack knowledge on tools on how to manage, plan, implement, measure, or creatively tell stories about their CSR and Sustainability programs. Even trainings and discussions focused on management techniques are more theory based versus a practical learning approach that the local market understands and favors.

What do you believe is the main area of focus from the four dimensions of sustainability in the market? Is it the social, environment, workplace or marketplace?

CSR must take into consideration of the holistic approach, and not the basic understanding of what CSR is usually interpreted as social responsibility. It takes into consideration the four pillars that you mentioned, equally as possible and this is one of the main reasons why I started defining the CSR acronym as Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility (CSR). I cannot talk about it in general as I believe that even within the gulf, CSR is different within each locality, and may also differ depending on the industry.  But despite that, organizations have initiated their focus on all the aspects in parallel and are working towards their social, environmental and economical footprints in addition to providing a responsible and thriving workplace for their employees. Such companies have recognized that by investing in these four pillars, there will be opportunities that can assist businesses to grow and to be sustainable in the future.

That was a more general feedback, however I am interested more specific opinion. But what do you believe are the top five challenges in terms of corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR) – as you define it- in the Middle East?

This might be a difficult one to answer, as I believe there are multiple aspects within each dimension that can be elaborated on. However, these are the main challenges:

  1. CSR and sustainability integration remains to be a big issue in the Middle East. Companies are still struggling on how they can integrate CSR to their core businesses, indentifying metrics that capture their organizational sustainability performance.
  2. CSR governance is another large concern, as several companies currently are in the process of building and structuring their CSR departments and putting mechanisms for internal governance.
  3. Measurement of CSR programs is still not explored as much in the market. Companies have yet to put large efforts into advancing their social measurement techniques to demonstrate the value created out of their social investments.
  4. Reporting. This might come as a surprise as the market is flooded with companies wanting to report. However, companies are misguided of the benefits of reporting, as it is currently used more as a PR exercise than a tool that helps transparency, internal performance tracking, monitoring and evaluation, and one that has a longer lasting impact in the market.
  5. The Arab springs have greatly affected the market as well. The issue of corruption within the trade and tendering side of business has pushed organizations to start implementing practices that tackles the issue of non ethical business conducts. Therefore, the necessity of advancing practices related to responsible supply chains is now needed more than ever before.

Any final comments or views about CSR in the Middle Eastern Market?

I am very optimistic and impressed with few things pertaining to the local market; first, I am very happy about the increasing number of Arabs that are choosing to pursue CSR and Sustainability as a career. I am pleased to see us recognizing the value of driving a career related to this practice. Secondly, I am very pleased to see governments in the region supporting and introducing policies to encourage sustainable development in the public and private sector. And finally, I am happy to see a lot of civil society organizations getting involved in this subject area, and playing an important role between the corporate and the community at large.

In general, I believe people are reacting positively to the sustainability agenda, and a growing number of social enterprises in the Arab world will be a key trigger for accelerating this concept in the Middle East.

This interview brought about some interesting facets about sustainability and CSR within the local market.  I personally found it fascinating to see the perspective of a local expert’s opinion as I felt that I got greater insights about the possibilities and potential of CSR and sustainability to further develop in the local market.