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From Social to Cultural Responsibility

Tom SweeneyAs an expatriate Englishman with an anthropological penchant, it is perhaps unsurprising that my interest is in the socio-cultural aspects of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Recently, when researching mining companies working in Papua New Guinea (PNG), my attention was drawn to the issue of how large corporations are impacting non-industrial or non-capitalist societies.

The presence of mining in PNG has inarguably changed the cultural landscape of the area. Many communities not just in PNG but globally, have been thrust into the economic sphere of influence of the Western world, with little preparation or choice, due to their geographical proximity to operations owned and run by large multinational corporations.

The problem is, cultures evolve over extended periods of time, influenced by resource availability, life expectancy, neighbouring cultures, religious beliefs, birth and death rates and so on. The culture that is born as a result of these influences is often, at least in part, the sociological remedy to the hardships and trials of everyday life. For example, many communities in PNG have a culture that involves reciprocal hospitality with neighbouring communities. Hospitality in these cultures is often used to display status, where wealth accumulation would be used in Western societies.

Social constructs such as the aforementioned are coping mechanisms, they allow a community to combat the resource shortages in their environment and to ensure reliable allies in times of war. These coping mechanisms become entrenched in the lives and beliefs of the society and become part of their culture.

With the introduction of massive amounts of relative wealth for some communities (those which own the land that the organisations wish to use) and not for others, means that the balance that existed in order for reciprocity to exist is disturbed. However, the sudden accumulation of wealth is only valuable to the community if it embraces capitalism – highlighting how cultures and societies can be dramatically altered by a company’s actions.

The introduction of Westernised industry into areas which previously were unindustrialised can have both positive and negative effects on local communities. Mining companies in particular can offer unprecedented levels of economic growth for indigenous communities, offering not only direct economic benefits but also bringing infrastructure and employment opportunities to areas.

As a CSR professional, my main concern is that even those companies that are willing to invest in social responsibility and are entering into operations with the best intentions are surely limited by their own socialised reasoning. It is often argued by anthropologists that it is impossible for someone to understand a culture unless you are born and raised in it. Considering this it would be difficult to argue responsibility for decisions made to operate in an area without a native understanding of the communities to be affected.

Some mining companies believe they have found solutions to this such as Carey Mining which is Western Australia’s leading indigenous mining contractor, through a focus on cultural sensitivity and awareness. However, is it really possible to claim social responsibility in situations where communities are irrevocably altered by the presence of industry?  Perhaps what we need now is corporate cultural responsibility.

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