There is no doubt that we are facing one of the greatest challenges in a generation.
COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has successfully brought most of the world to a standstill. It is likely to force countless businesses, both small and large, into administration; shortages in certain goods due to stockpiling are challenging supply chains and leaving the most vulnerable who are unable to leave home, to go without; every day vast numbers of people are losing their lives to the virus, and emotional wellbeing is jeopardised. The impact is already wide-reaching, with cases across every continent, with profound and lasting consequences to how we live, how we do business and how we interact personally, locally, nationally and internationally.
The coronavirus pandemic represents a number of things – a global emergency, a health catastrophe, and an economic crisis. However, it also exists as a test of what constitutes truly responsible corporate behaviour. Now more than ever, those calling for a change in the attitudes of companies, from platforms such as the World Economic Forum, have to prove that those boardroom speeches calling for a shift to more sustainable and responsible business practices are more than just meaningless soundbites.
There is a perception of global business, confirmed by academic research and surveys, as being overwhelmingly self-interested, prioritising its own objectives to the detriment of societal goals. Alongside this, the majority of the British public believe that the profit motive represents ‘an actively-malevolent force’. With public opinion around international business so low, empty talk of corporate social responsibility in a time of crisis risks exposing a clear credibility gap. If companies are to have any hope in bridging this gap, how they respond to the COVID pandemic will be crucial. The crisis tells us two things which are relevant to this response: firstly it is not about a single issue. The health crisis is linked to many other concerns – economies and livelihoods, mental health and wellbeing, equality and social divisions. Companies need to be able to create integrated responses and do so at grassroots level, within communities.
Secondly the crisis has highlighted the importance of collective action, between companies and government, involving community organisations and learning from international experience. How companies deploy their considerable resources, which consist of skills, logistics, information and ingenuity, not simply cash, will define social responsibility for at least a decade ahead. If companies fail to turn these attributes and a capacity to co-operate with others, to the challenge of this crisis, then warm words about sustainability and corporate responsibility will exist as little more than evidence of the disconnect between business elites and the real world.
Now more than ever, when talking about corporate responsibility, companies must be considering how they are going to deliver ‘human security’ – working with government, communities and individuals to protect people from harm, and help ensure tolerable lives. Through a ‘human security contract’ all parties work to support one another in achieving the results they can benefit from, individually and collectively. This is the guiding idea behind the human security business partnership framework developed by LSE IDEAS in conjunction with the United Nations, helping to guide companies to establish partnerships with communities and governmental bodies, in which both parties’ needs and risks can be identified and mutualised.
In responding to COVID-19, many companies have had to take extraordinary steps to preserve jobs and the welfare of their staff. Others have already gone further in finding ways to support the wider community. Manufacturing companies all over the globe have utilised the resources at their disposal to help bolster the production of urgent medical equipment. Alongside this, a number of supermarkets in the UK have been fast-tracking job applications, offering those out of work due to COVID a means of earning money, as well as increasing their manpower to cater for the increased demand. More exercises in repurposing and ingenuity will be required as this crisis progresses.
A focus on human security and effective collaborations, bringing together diverse capacities, are the path to pressing re-set on what we have come to think of as CSR. From Colombia to West Africa, there are examples such as a coal company partnering with a local church to provide food and emergency equipment to vulnerable communities, or companies from every sector reactivating the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group which was so effective in helping the last major regional pandemic in 2014. There are undoubtedly lessons in this crisis for how businesses can contribute to help create societies that are economically and socially stable and resilient. As more companies realise the role they have in helping to achieve human security, after this crisis I hope to see businesses aligning their goals with that of local communities, partnering with these groups to ensure that both parties can benefit.