This has been a phenomenon quite old with the corporate world, but now it has acquired a glamorous face. .It is rural development or euphemistically called CSR tourism—brief visits by corporate leaders whose businesses are obliged to take up community development as part of public commitment. But, as is their wont, many businesses are using these opportunities for brand promotion and in the process expanding their business markets. These CSR works are now the fulcrum of aggressive brand building exercises and every social intervention is leveraged to the hilt with publicity blitzkriegs.
Businesses are powerful constituents of society and the most successful, respected, and desirable businesses exist to do much more than make money; they exist to use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. It is a good sign that more corporate cash is now swilling about, but unfortunately it’s not spread evenly across among charities, with large and few charities getting the lion’s share.
Whether it is the need for clean drinking water or proper roads or inexpensive housing or even broadband access in the remotest parts of the country, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015 by the United Nations, are now becoming the fulcrum for emerging growth markets.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) represent a powerful opportunity for business to participate in this mission .CSR is a business approach that contributes to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders
But there are marked class differences in the CSR agenda which need a course correction. Charity leaders have a geographic bias with companies funding projects closer to where they are based. Consequently, more industrialized states are winning over poorer, more remote regions where development aid is acutely needed. Politics can skew priorities too, with some companies looking to gain goodwill by backing government-led projects rather than independent initiatives. In several cases there is less development and more leveraging for business goals .Villages which have been adopted by several of these CSR projects bear out the truth.
This CSR exercise has produced a legion of CSR managers who have designed well rehearsed CSR tourism and junket trips for junket press and media publicity.
The usual CSR tourism normally follows a common script.
Convoys of SUVs form part of the entourage that zooms through a crowd of villagers awed by the grand peacockry. No wonder the elder and more intelligent villages distrust all these urbanised gentry who jeep themselves into the village, complete with their pageantry, exhorting the local population to produce fewer babies and more food for the benefit of their urban brethren. There is no mention of the exploitative prices for their produce that has been the key cause of their impoverishment. They deliver these messages to the villages, and hastily jeep their way back to their urban environment.
The visitor, usually a top honcho, sets out late, delayed by last minute business, by subordinates or superiors anxious for decisions, by breakfast delayed at the wife’s eagerness to pack some sandwiches for the husband lest he might have to take a nibble of the unhygienic outside food; there could be a last-minute cable or call from an upcountry colleague. Or delays might come from mechanical or administrative problems with vehicles, or by urban traffic jams. Even if the way is not lost, and there is enough fuel and there are no breakdowns, the programme usually still slips behind schedule. The visitor is ensconced in the luxury of the Land Rover seeking a temporary escape from the rigours of an imposed rural visit through music on headphones.
As the entourage arrives, accompanied with a haversack of sandwiches and soda-water bottles, there is a gala welcome, a tribal dance by girls, women in traditional attire daubing vermilion on the foreheads of the temporary gods, local notables (headmen, chairmen of village committees, village accountants, progressive farmers) waiting obsequiously for a darshan (view) of the dignitaries. Whatever their private feelings, the poor have been told earlier that they should give their children an early bath and dress them in their best clothes. The school teachers have been helping the girls rehearse the welcome dance for the dignitary. All are mouthing slogans that will eulogize the visitor as a great saviour.
Buntings have been hung; the villagers had kept awake overnight cleaning the entire village. Girls had got up early to deck their front yards with colourful rangoli (ornate patterns drawn with coloured chalk powder). As the dignitary’s car zooms in, you have the local block officials or the corporate PR men chasing the car with impeccable etiquette to usher the visitor into a new world.
A day before the visit, the local hosts have provided with an assortment of high-end branded accessories: Bombay Dyeing bed sheets, pillows covers, towels, napkins, toiletries and more. A complete set of Italian crockery in the car of the hostess precedes the visitor’s arrival. They will manage the high tea. The entire consignment of assorted biscuits and choicest dry fruits has been carted overnight. There are a wide variety of welcome drinks such as coconut milk, aerated drinks, coffee, tea or milk; at least one should exactly fit the visitors’ tastes.
The traditional turban is strung around the dignitary’s head along with garlands. Speeches are made. School children sing or clap. Photographs are taken. Buildings, machines, construction works, new crops, exotic animals, the clinic, the school, the new road—all are inspected and commended with gleeful smiles. Some special group could be the progressive farmers or members of women’s collectives — members dressed in their best clothes–is paraded and spoken to. A display of manufacture of cottage cheese being done by a girl entrepreneur, a knitting salon run by a local girls and or traditional crafts of local tribal artisans are put on display. The guest tastes a few sweets. An elderly woman gets a whole pack nicely wrapped and passes it on to the driver to be delivered to the dignitary on reaching his home base.
As the day wears on and heats up, the visitor becomes less inquisitive, asks fewer questions and is finally glad, exhausted and bemused, to retire to the rest house, the host official’s residence or back to an urban home or hotel. Before returning, he asks his deputy to write remarks in the Visitors Book using the most fulsome adjectives and mechanically signs it off. Villagers suggest they have prepared a special meal for the dignitary, putting their culinary skill to the best use. They are politely told that the dignitary has a restricted diet and is meticulous about it .A few enterprising and enthusiastic villagers offer packs of custard apples and exotic varieties of vegetables which are mechanically directed to the driver for safekeeping. After the dignitary’s departure, the village swiftly returns to normal, no longer wearing its special face.
These people have no time for piffling sentimentality when there’s living to be done.
When the dignitaries leave, the usual comments are: “They come, and they sign the book, and they go”, “They only talk to the buildings”. “We have to crane our necks in the caustic heat just to see them, forget about talking with them.” “They slouch in grimy plastic chairs under a nearby tree. Or else they plonk themselves down where they can and start beavering away.”
While tourism and branding may be one part of the CSR agenda, it is not objectionable if it is a win –win strategy for both business and development.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org