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Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Development: Towards a New Agenda and Beyond

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This paper investigates whether calls for a new, more critical corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda are sufficient to address the concerns of critics that CSR activities have not only been largely ineffective, but have functioned to legitimate other corporate practices that adversely affect development. After examining what a more critical CSR agenda might look like, the paper argues for the need to move beyond CSR and address the issue of corporate profit strategies and the power of capital. A recent conference organized by the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development (UNRISD) had as its theme "Corporate Social Responsibility and Development: Towards a New Agenda?" In his opening remarks to the conference, the Deputy Director and CSR Research Co-ordinator at UNRISD, Peter Utting, argued for a more critical approach to CSR, one that not only took into account the priorities of developing countries, but was rooted in an account of "the structural and policy determinants of underdevelopment, inequality and poverty, and the relationship of TNCs to these." (2003: 7) Several presenters at the conference went beyond arguing about the form of a new CSR agenda, however, to advocate the need for a corporate accountability (CA) agenda. CA moves beyond CSR in that it contends that corporations should not be free to set their own standards or choose to follow recommended standards in key areas. Rather, there should be legal mechanisms in operation that compel them to live up to socially determined standards. Drawing upon these themes, this paper investigates the following questions: 1) what a new CSR agenda – one based upon a more critical understanding of CSR – should entail; 2) whether and why there may be a need to go beyond a new CSR agenda, and; 3) how much beyond CSR we may need to go. Underlying these questions is a not only doubt about the effectiveness of CSR programs, but a concern that CSR may function to detract attention from or even legitimate other corporate practices that can adversely affect development. Answers to these questions presuppose some normative account of what development should be and a social scientific (and, in particular, a political economy) account of the relationship between corporate activities and the structural causes of inequality and poverty in the Global South. In investigating these questions, we first distinguish three different conceptions of (human) development. Next we go on to give an account of the uncritical nature of mainstream approaches to CSR, and criteria for developing a more critical approach. In the third section, we illustrate what a new CRS agenda might look like, as well as indicating how a CA agenda would move beyond this. Finally, by way of conclusion, we examine how the three different conceptions of (human) development relate to the question of whether there is a need to merely adopt a new CSR agenda or to move beyond CSR.

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