Your money and CSR

The term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) connotes self-regulation of private companies in the abidance of laws and ethical standards. In international development circles a large part of the term’s meaning has come to be about development projects sponsored by companies working in the South.

For example, once in a while Tim Hortons will build a school for an impoverished coffee-growing community it makes purchases from. It’s all really nice. The community gets a school (Why doesn’t it already have a school? Could it be because of the measly prices paid by Tim Hortons to the producers?).   Tim Hortons gets to make nice ads about it. And we get to feel good about how our coffee purchases are helping Central American children gain an education.

In terms of development it doesn’t amount to very much. In fact it probably has a negative overall impact. By portraying the image that its helping people while it actually impoverishes them, Tim Hortons stalls efforts that call for adjustment of the terms of trade, or other transformative measures, to help Southern farmers get fair prices for their goods.

Anyhow, CSR is great for public relations. And guess what? Corporations no longer have to work so hard to improve their image because the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is using our money to help them.

MiningWatch Canada reports that “taxpayer dollars are now subsidizing the corporate social responsibility… projects of the world’s wealthiest mining companies.”

“In a letter received by MiningWatch Canada, [Minister of International Cooperation] Bev Oda acknowledges the agency has set aside $499,445 for a corporate social responsibility project at a Barrick mine site in Peru. Barrick will contribute ‘approximately $150,000.’ Oda goes on to state that she is ‘pleased to inform you that I have recently approved the contribution of $500,000 over three years to a project in…Ghana’. This project is located at a Rio Tinto Alcan mine site and Rio Tinto Alcan will contribute $268,000.”

Oda’s letter also talks about CIDA helping “countries to build their… capacity over a wide range of responsibilities, including legislation, regulation, and enforcement” of extractive-sector investment. What that really means is that CIDA is working to make sure Canadian companies can continue to run away with super-profits. Euphemisms are great.

Now, you might be asking why I would make such a charge. Why? Because that’s what our government does. If it was actually helping countries better regulate their mining sectors, CIDA would be doing exactly the opposite of what our foreign policy is about when it comes to this sort of thing. And if you’ve looked, even just by accident, at a Canadian newspaper in the last little while you’ll know that CIDA’s role as crafted by our government has it fitting very nicely into our general foreign policy.

In The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy Yves Engler tells of the Canadian High Commission in Tanzania intervening in that country’s legislative process on behalf of our mining companies in 2008. The Presidential Sector Review Committee had “recommended that a larger proportion of profits created by higher mineral (mostly gold) prices be retained by the government.” The recommendation was rejected thanks to Canadian efforts (phew, amirite?).[1]

To close, I’d like to get back to CIDA’s funding of CSR efforts. I’m sure that the money jointly given by CIDA and [insert mining company name] for development projects does some good for the communities receiving the help. But this is a perfect example of the function of aid as described by Eduardo Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America:

“Aid” works like the philanthropist who put a wooden leg on his piglet because he was eating it bit by bit.[2]

1. Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, (Fernwood Publishing, 2009), p. 176

2. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, (Monthly Review Press, 1997), p. 227


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