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COVID-19 corporate donations: Bazaar or absence of strategic CSR

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It is about six years now after Nigeria overcame the Ebola virus epidemic. While Nigeria survived the outbreak with less number of casualties, some African countries are still grieving from that experience.

Many experts argued that if not for the bravery of the staff of First Consultant Hospital, Obalende, particularly Dr. Stella Adadevoh, Nigeria would probably not have recovered from that onslaught.

To them, that explains why the country recorded just 20 Ebola virus cases with eight deaths, compared to 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. These are countries in the West Africa belt with Nigeria.

While on a visit to Nigeria recently, the Governor-General of Canada, Julie Payette commended the Lagos State government for managing and containing the spread of the virus when the index case, the Liberian-American, Patrick Sawyer visited the country in 2014.

According to Payette, if not for the swift action of the government, an outbreak of the dreaded virus in a thickly populated city like Lagos would have simply spelt doom. She expressed delight that should another Ebola outbreak occur, the state was now ready and better equipped to handle such, especially with the launch of the new biosecurity laboratory and biobank at the Mainland Hospital, Yaba.

“The biobank will have the capacity to process and rapidly identify samples suspected for Ebola, Lassa fever and other infectious diseases with epidemic potential,” Payette said. The biosecurity laboratory funded by Canada, through its Global Partnership Programme (GPP) in partnership with Lagos State serves as a single repository for all high-concentration pathogens.

Nigeria’s coronavirus cases are still on the very mild side, particularly if the country’s statistics are compared with what is happening in some other countries now, where hundreds of people die in a day. The commitment of the private sector to helping the government to at least check the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic calls for the spotlight. Surprisingly, after the Ebola outbreak; despite it ravaged three countries on the West Africa belt, they went to sleep. This is because, except the support that Lagos State got from the Canadian government through the setting up of the biosecurity lab and Molecular Biology Laboratory that Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) got from Chevron, there was no very tangible support from other private sectors in preparing for the epidemic of this nature. But they seem awakened now. This is because the supports for government in the last few days had been massive. Nigeria has never had this kind of response from the private sector players in terms of the amount dished out to the government to work with to halt the spread of coronavirus in Nigeria.

All the supports coming from the private sector, no doubt would be naturally captured under its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Despite this, has the private sector in Nigeria been strategic in its CSR in the last six years, especially after the Ebola virus crisis. If it has been strategic in its engagement, would the rush and unplanned donations being made at present come up? The sum total of what has been donated by the private sector to this cause is not yet known. This is because while many of the private organisations have done open show, some others have done behind the door donation.

The United Bank for Africa donated N2.5bn, Glo donated N1.5bn, Nigeria Waterways Authority (NIWA) donated N10m, Intels donated an Isolation centre at Onner Port, just as GtBank donated a 110-bed space Isolation centre in Lagos. Also, NIMASA donated 20 ventilators and N50m, Keystone Bank donated N1bn, Famfa donated N1bn, while APM terminals donated N100m.

These are some of the donations so far, there are others not mentioned. These monies when putting together, no doubt, would have helped to prevent some of the haphazard efforts to get coronavirus spread halted and treat those who are positive. When the first suspected cases were recorded in Ogun and Oyo States, the tests to confirm if they were positive or not were done in Lagos because Ogun and Oyo could not carry out the test. Still now. Many states still could not carry out the coronavirus test.

Surprisingly, the molecular lab donated by Chevron cost just N100m while the laboratory donated to the Lagos government by the Canadian government cost $3.25m.

On if corporate organisations have been strategic in their CSR programmes and projects over the years, especially considering Nigeria had experienced Ebola outbreak not quite long, a marketing communication strategist and scholar, Chido Nwakanma said CSR is now accepted as a significant part of corporate governance and the United Nations even spells it out under its social compact. He added that companies are supposed to report on their corporate citizenship activities.

He nonetheless said there are two problems with CSR in Nigeria. “Accountability is one. The primary accountability lies with the recipient of donor funds. However, donors also have a duty to shareholders to do whatever they can to ensure the appropriate use of their donations. They should adopt Corporate Social Investment principles that tie the funds to specific projects and deliverables.

“It is about the motivation for donating. The best practice is for the highest standards of corporate governance to be the guide. However, there may be other interests. The GTB model is what I would recommend. Put your funds to a specific project, develop it, then hand it over.”

On her part, Practice Director, A’Lime Impact Partnerships, Emilia Asim - Ita, stated that it is a multi-faceted issue, as many corporate organisations already pay taxes, levies, and regulatory fines in addition to providing basic amenities for their operations - power, water among others. According to her, it is a bit unfair to blame these organisations for failings in developing the public health system.

“We should, however, question why the budgetary allocation for health remains abysmal. Ebola is also a different case study. It was contained quickly by the Lagos State government, unlike coronavirus.
I am also not absolving corporate organisations completely. We will all learn lessons from this, but I hope more business leaders will design multi-stakeholder partnerships in health. Remember, there are other areas of public health apart from infectious diseases - we have maternal and child mortality, Cancer, Diabetes to deal with too. These diseases have higher mortality rates across the world. There is Education too.”

Asim - Ita maintained that government, through political leaders, cannot fail at delivering on the social contract; diverting funds for health to other less important areas and then, blame corporate organisations for their failings in strategic CSR.

“I understand this argument but whilst this may be partly true; CSR is strategic as it should deliver returns albeit more nonfinancial to the organisation. First, there was no way of telling that COVID-19 would hit the world so soon; there were certainly concerns and even warnings, from the likes of Bill Gates, but this was not prioritised. Also, we all seemed to move on after Ebola.

“The issues are multi-faceted. We have the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) here but what funding did they receive after the Ebola scares? What infrastructure did the government provide? Whilst private organisations may act in ways that may be termed ‘enlightened self-interest’, the government must take responsibility for this too.”

For the Chief Responsibility Officer at TruCSR, CSR and Sustainability consulting firm, Ken Egbas, comparing when the country had to deal with Ebola and now that it has the Coronavirus pandemic, the failure of states and the federal government to have put facilities on ground unearths for him the crisis or absence of political leadership at nearly all levels.

He stated that usually, a crisis of the extent of Ebola should have put in place physical and knowledge infrastructure to be able to contain any future threat.

“That we have to be searching for both at this time means that as a nation, made of several layers of leadership, we are more reactionary than proactive. The ultimate seed of proactivity is that the process of mining, interpretation, and storage of data would be key. As the saying goes, what you don’t document, you cannot measure. What you cannot measure, you cannot improve. What you cannot improve is not a sustainable venture.”

Egbas argued that every crisis provides not only a gauge of the systems but also learning opportunities for the future. “The Ebola crisis shocked our system, and we reacted in desperation, other than a national set out response process. The same thing happened with the current Coronavirus pandemic. In both instances, we had the privileges of viewing debilitating optics from other parts of the world that portended the end of social relationships as we used to know it, and of course, the possibility of casualties in hundreds of thousands.”

In all of these, the TruCSR boss stated that the learnings that have occurred are three folds. Firstly, of which to him, is that many stakeholders, especially corporate organisations now have a better grasp of the meaning of corporate social responsibility.

“Usually, when people hear the word ‘responsibility’, it is often associated with burdens and restrictions; the opposite of being carefree and without obligations. Responsibility is neither a chore nor a cage. It is a function of how it is understood. Responsibility simply put- is our ability to respond. It is the choice we make whether to be attentive to our children’s need, or mindful of the plights of the less fortunate, or considerate of the impact we have on the earth and others.” To be responsible, he maintained, means to be proactive and sensitive to the interconnectedness of humanity and varying needs and a willingness to do something to protect it.

“The second learning that has occurred is the fact that Coronavirus provided most leaderships in the corporate world a masterclass learning moment, where Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability is better understood. Over the last fifteen years, the barrier to full-fledged adoption of CSR and sustainability by organisational leaders in the C-suites has been the elephant-in-the-room question of – what is the business case for CSR and sustainability?”

He noted that in less than three weeks, nearly N25bn has been committed by corporate organisations to the COVID-19 war chest, without much promptings or goading.

“Since the report of the Nigeria coronavirus index case, the value of shares have plummeted, the lockdown has affected the shut down of the daily economic grind, causing economic losses to the projected tune of trillions of naira.

“The SMEs are the worst hit, as, without palliatives, most may never be able to recover from losses incurred. After this, it is possible we see job losses to the tune of about 30 per cent or slightly more. So now, we all get it – business fails in societies that fail. There is no market if there is no corresponding patronage. Organisations grow from acorns to become behemoth because of the presence of a corresponding population that provides patronage.

“So, if we must sit by and watch society decimate, then we should be ready to kiss our businesses and well-honed money-making machines goodbye. Organisations don’t do society a favor by investing in social responsibility and sustainability, they simply do the necessary to keep the ecosystem going, lest everyone, every business perishes.

“Even when we have a society where the government fails to do its part, corporate organisations, with the number of resources at their disposal, sitting on the fence is suicidal.”

According to Egbas, the third learning with this crisis provides is that the country has entered the new normal, as many can now work from home, and still be productive. He added that a bank could build a world-class 110-bed capacity health facility within seven days.

“We are seeing a lot of ideas to drive societal cohesion and advancement since the advent of COVID-19. The supply of various essential products has been disrupted and the demands for various products and services have dropped off, negatively impacting national and global GDP.

“Effectively, we have entered a global recession. Recession usually brings about a business model change, driving down costs to serve and prices. This would tend to enable entirely new categories of businesses. Various business categories and industry sectors have been disrupted. They would now have to choose between innovation or extinction. There is also the angle of shared responsibility and partnerships to drive development and societal advancement that make collaborations a necessity for the future.”

Egbas argued that the present situation tells that the collective understanding of CSR pre-COVID was below par. He noted that though some have argued that a lot of the corporates responded swiftly because for the first time the pandemic threat was no respecter of status or persons, more so, it locked everyone within their various locations, with the safety nets of the elites and their dependents being able to jet off to Europe or America for better healthcare facilities taken away from them.

“Hence, they're seeing the necessity of having world-class facilities they can use at home. Whether this is true or not, one thing is sure, COVID-19 provided us as a nation that kicks in the groin that makes us understand better our responsibilities to ourselves, society, and the world. This wiser we come out of this pandemic, the better for our society and the future of generations unborn. We now understand clearly that there is no future for business if we do not make the future our business.”


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