absolutely nothing? not quite.
i come at this topic from a potentially unique perspective - i have an academic and professional background in international development, but have spent the last 3 years working in the field that can broadly be described as corporate social responsibility (csr) with an oil and gas company. and i have to say, the two worlds are not as far apart as one would think.
the last few years have certainly taught me that csr, like development and humanitarian aid, is a diverse field with some fantastic ideas and programmes and a whole lot of crappy ideas and a handful of people who think CSR IS GOING TO SAVE THE WORLD.
while i certainly don't see the pillars of a good csr strategy as a panacea to the world's problems, i don't think that for-profit organisations are anything to be feared and can 'do good' while also making money.
and here's a few ways: demanding clean supply chains, hiring local people and contractors, investing in local talent development, supporting established organisations through donations and sponsorships (commonly called 'community investment'), ensuring a safe and healthy worksite for current employees, and minimising the amount of environmental damage or degradation its operations cause.
to be clear, i don't think that a company does, or necessarily should, do these things out of the goodness of their hearts. i think there are a lot of intrinsic motivators for businesses to implement effective csr strategies, including enhancing local services and recreation to attract the best staff. to improve the talent pool from which they will draw now and in the future (essentially, capacity building in the development sense) by supporting education facilities and programmes. to improve value for their shareholders (however value is described) by demonstrating they are a sustainable enterprise. to build morale within the companies and appealing to their staff who want to work at a responsible company.
true, companies can leverage their csr initiatives for marketing and to build their reputation with potential customers, and those motivations all seem relatively clear, but i think that csr is too often written off because this is seen as its only purpose.
csr can be done horribly wrong and i would argue, some companies who think they should get into the world of csr don't think strategically or consider it a professional field that comes with years of research, analysis, successes, and failures. too often, a seemingly 'good cause' is supported through writing a giant cheque or volunteers are sent out for the photo opportunity, with little concern for what impact (positive, negative, or null) it will have.
in fact, the company that i work for has a csr situation gone sideways. they wanted to improve water and sanitation in a community where they operate and figured they could work with a un agency (because if csr can't save the world, the un will!). their intentions, unsurprisingly, were good and everyone had that warm, fuzzy feeling that doesn't come often for a bunch of engineers working in an extractive industry.
but those good intentions were not enough. the project is years overdue, has suffered from high-level turnover at both organisations, and has not had the intended positive effects that everyone had hoped. in hindsight, i think they realise they bit off more than they could chew and were ill informed with how the un functions (or does not) and what happens when you improve social services in one village and not the rest (surprise, people migrate!).
and why? because in this case, the company is not an expert in water and sanitation projects in this particular country. had they hired someone who was, they may have found that in this case, writing a giant cheque would've been more beneficial.
in other words, csr decisions and strategies should be taken seriously and addressed by professionals, not just those who want to go home from work feeling good (which is similar to Milton Friedman's argument that a business behaves ethically by turning a profit), but often are not seen as important enough to dedicate sufficient people and resources. csr costs companies money, it does not earn companies money. and i think that as long as that is understood and accepted, csr initiatives have a better chance at success.
and writing this is incredibly self serving as i find myself at a crossroads where i could continue on the csr career path or i could turn back to the world i once knew and work internationally with a humanitarian/development programme. i am not convinced that either will be a perfect fit for me and each comes with challenges and frustrations, but i do believe there is a role for each in meaningful and effective socioeconomic development and humanitarian aid, internationally and locally.