Monday, September 26

Giving back meaningfully

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DECEMBER is the month that makes many of us warm and fuzzy all over. Christmas is just around the corner. A brand new year comes just after that. The air of festivity is clear and crisp. There is no escaping it. From advertisements in the newspapers to shopping malls, we are reminded of the joy of giving.

This is also the time of the year when people who are ‘less fortunate’ and ‘underprivileged’ are treated to parties and gifts. These events are held in the name of corporate social responsibility by multinationals and home-grown corporations alike. The guests are usually orphans, senior citizens and disabled persons who are living in the fringes, often ignored, marginalised and even forgotten.

First and foremost, I admit that I am looking the gift horse in the mouth. I have a beef about how the guests have been described. Words like ‘less fortunate’ invoke images of pity and despondency. It puts them in an inferior position in society. Other than being condescending, the usage of these words stigmatises them as being helpless and always in need of charity.

These events are supposed to create positive vibes but are sullied by the ignorant usage of negative connotations. Why is being old, a milestone we all cannot avoid, considered less fortunate? Why not just describe them for who they are — orphans, senior citizens and disabled persons – instead of dramatising the situation? There are times we must call a spade a spade and this is one of those times.

For all intents and purposes, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a model where organisations voluntarily ensure compliance to laws, ethics and norms in line with local and international practices with the objective of creating a positive impact on society. What programmes and how they are implemented vary from organisation to organisation. Generally, it is corporations giving back to make society better and the environment cleaner.

Nevertheless, I have seen a fair share of good and downright manipulative programmes during my involvement in some of these initiatives. There have been occasions where events were cleverly disguised as CSR-based when the real intention was to promote a brand, organisation or figure.

This killing of two birds with one stone is an economical way of generating publicity in the mass media that benefits no one except the corporations themselves. I know this well as I was involved in crafting press releases and blurbs for such events when I was working as a freelance copywriter. I am not proud of what I have done.

I have also witnessed businesses that make it a point to organise parties for members of disabled persons’ organisations during Chinese New Year. On the other hand, they have done nothing on their part to employ disabled persons with the excuse that the workplace is neither accessible nor conducive. They make no effort to eliminate systemic barriers within the organisations although they are seen in public as being sympathetic towards the cause of disabled persons.

CSR is surely more than merely a once a year affair of hosting lunch or dinner during festive seasons. That one meal cannot uplift the quality of life of the people involved. They still have to grapple with issues of life the other 364 days. This practice is so prevalent nowadays that it has become the norm and an easy way out for doing just for the sake of doing that does not change anything for the better.

Another example of a slipshod initiative is the donation of wheelchairs. There is usually neither consultation nor consideration to ensure that the equipment fulfils the needs of the recipients. The usual hospital type wheelchairs are mostly ill fitting and can cause a host of postural problems. Giving them out actually does more harm than good to the users.

To be fair, for every organisation that runs shoddy CSR projects, there is another that takes this seriously and adds value to the various communities they do business in. Their programmes are well thought out and sustainable. They encourage volunteerism in their employees.

These initiatives include cooperation with established organisations in the conservation of endangered flora and fauna, and providing self-development opportunities to marginalised groups through sponsored education and vocational training, among others. These are projects that will change lives and create a meaningful and positive impact on society.

In this season of giving, I sincerely urge corporations planning CSR programmes for the coming year to consider initiatives that will result in win-win situations for all parties. Speaking from the perspective of a disabled person, I would like to see more CSR initiatives to make the built environment accessible, especially in schools and workplaces. Accessible facilities are generally safer and benefit everyone.

I also hope that business entities will emulate Mydin, KFC and Giant in providing employment for disabled persons through the Job Coach Programme. The pioneering efforts of these companies have shown that when given opportunities and reasonable accommodation, disabled persons too can earn a decent living and become independent.

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.