Baraka Blog

Growing thoughts

Category Archives: CSR

The question of profit..

I start a conversation with a business man I recently co-presented with on a panel on Entrepreneurship “Pioneering or moving boundaries”.  In my presentation, I explicitly stated that social entrepreneurship is not a non-profit model.. and yet, he begins our dialogue by making a distinction between his “For-profit” and my “Non-profit” business.

I am perplexed. What is the root of the assumption that many in the MENA region seem to have? A business can either exist to make profit, or offer social value! Not both.

If a business doesn’t offer social value; then what value does it offer? And if a business is offering social value, then shouldn’t it deserve to be rewarded for it?

By definition; social entrepreneurship is applying entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage ventures to achieve social change.  We operate in a society that has its fair share of social challenges. It seems to me social entrepreneurship can serve to address these challenges.  Shouldn’t we attempt to understand it? teach it? encourage it? and rewarded those who engage in it and bring social value, whilst making a reasonable profit?

Presented with two Ad agencies which would you choose and why?

One offers creative services in return for high profit margins; creativity is arrived at through brand building based on emotions such as desire to live luxuriously, to emulate  aspirational figures; it replicates models successfully employed in other countries. It pays little attention to localizing the message, or investigating brand and messaging conflicts with local social values, norms and environmental challenges.

The other offers creative services, rooted in local culture aligned with social values for modest profits since the creative work here requires digging deeper to build a values-based brand. The later seeks to understand social norms, values, issues, and creates an association of a brand with a value, a social challenge, and identifies the way this brand is addressing the social challenge.

To be continued… pending a response to the questions above…


I wonder if he knows …

Standing  in line to get a signature, the man behind the counter looks up, his expression: apathetic, his tone: sarcastic, he says: “what’s your rush? wait, the process takes time”.

I wonder if he knows, the value of this time I spend waiting in line, waiting for signatures, waiting for him to return my call, waiting for his CEO to get back in town, waiting for his CFO to approve funding;

I wonder if he knows a child who has just lost his mother under the rubble of their home is waiting for a doctor to save his life;

that doctor waits for the funding that needs the signature of the CFO who needs the approval of the CEO who has yet to read my proposal!

He says “wait a minute”. I wonder if he knows he holds the life of a child in the document he needs to sign. A minute has gone by.. I wonder if he knows 17 children die every minute.

help a child

“Reflective Working”

Arabic verse II

18 years of work and dozens of seminars on effective working practice and management, yet only recently have I started  practicing reflective working!  A few years back, I was telling a dear colleague and mentor that I had grown tired of working for the sake of working; that I often questioned why I was in a certain meeting, what purpose I really served in the team, wondered who benefited from my work and why I worked a certain way or didn’t!  I wondered if others reflected on their days.. did they ask themselves whether a certain meeting was more important than time spent at home with their kids? Could an activity be done in a more efficient manner if they included colleagues?  He told me….

إذا أردتَ أن تعرفَ مقامك، فانظر فيما أقامك

Loosely translated, that means to know your place with God you must reflect on what you do and work on.  Since that conversation, I have grown accustomed to taking stock of my work day, week, month and year. While that hasn’t “fixed” a problem.. it has provided a tool that allows me to learning from mistakes share my vision and knowledge, dare to experiment, challenging group-think, and become far more aware of time wasting activities.

Most work environments don’t facilitate reflection. The collective momentum to move in a certain direction, office layout, background symphonies of rapid footsteps, ringing phones, speedy typing, anxious conversations, aired frustrations forces one to keep to the beat. But above all, the primary factor standing in the way of reflective thinking individual recognition of its value.  Knowing and acknowledging that on a long and windy road, one has to stop and look at a map.

Social Entrepreneurship and the Middle East – A Vision

Picture 14

Over the past eight years, I have read, listened to and watched material on Social Entrepreneurship.  The work of Mohamad Younis of Grameen Bank,  Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen fund and Bill Drayton of Ashoka inspired me.  I found that like countless others, their work focused on Africa, East Asia, South America, some work in Afghanistan, but the bulk of Arab nations in the Middle East were overlooked!

At first glance I thought perhaps we don’t have the extreme issues that nations face in Africa, India and the rest; no famine, natural disasters and rampant disease.  Social Entrepreneurs work to solve problems of marginalized communities, eradicate social and environmental problem areas, and work in a triple bottom line  model.  It turns out the Middle East, Arab / Non Arab nations, Christians, Muslims and all others have their fair share of  marginalized communities, social and environmental issues that are crying out to be addressed; and there’s a strong and growing population of positive change agents who are devoting their lives to solve them.

Our issues it turns out are of a different variety, maybe more subtle, no less alarming, and with far reaching consequences if left unaddressed.  We have the largest population under the age of 30, with bleak prospects for education and employment opportunities.  We have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, especially in children.  Some of our nations rank highest in carbon footprint, yet have the lowest fresh water supplies in the world. Deforestation is a critical problem, over-fishing, eroding coral reefs, use of pesticides in crops, polluted cities and much more. Our children don’t read, don’t interact with nature and when asked, many lack dreams and role models.

The encouraging fact is there are hundreds, if not thousands of social entrepreneurs who have been working and continue to work to address and solve these problems. Yet, until recently, they worked alone, and didn’t have the banner of Social Entrepreneurship to collaborate under. The term is slowly making its way into the media, university discussions, forums and state dialogues.  Organizations are beginning to pop-up to encourage collaboration, dialogue, experience exchanges. Some of the forerunners have received acclaim from international organizations, like Injaz-AlArab. Women, who are often the spotlight of the international media for their low employment rates, are among the leaders in their civic responsibility  and can do more given the training and collaboration tools.

I dream of the day when social entrepreneurship is taught at middle school level. When children are taken on field trips to show them role models in the field, where every university student is asked to give his or her idea of how to solve a problem, save a forest, educate a village, eradicate diabetes; a day when every business has a social bottom line and a community problem to solve.. where the media celebrates the social heroes  and governments write about them in school curricula. I dream of governments collaborating across boarders for cleaner air, higher fresh water tables and much more!

The beginning of the end of an era?

It appears that the newly appointed Supreme Court Associate Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, is starting to challenge what is seen as one of the primary tenets of corporate law, namely the conferment of human characteristics on the corporation.

According to this Wall Street Journal Article, Justice Sotomayor stated that:

Judges “created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons,” she said. “There could be an argument made that that was the court’s error to start with…[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics.”

The revision of the laws of incorporation and holding people responsible for their actions, even (especially) when these actions are taken from behind the doors of boardrooms, is an essential part of the restructuring that’s needed to prevent the financial, social and environmental transgressions that have been spiraling out of control not only in the United States, but all over the world.

It is heartening to see Justice Sotomayor willing to ignite such a debate and I hope that it finds a way to be constructively continued.

Multinationals and CSR in the MENA region – Part 2

Unilever launched a “Real Beauty” campaign in 2005 across in the UAE and Saudi. MBC viewers across the Arab World saw the advertisements.1 The   Unilever “Campaign for Real Beauty” website claims support for Arab women who are disheartened by the media’s portrayal of  women with diverse physical characteristics  in  “Shaping the beauty idea – how far is the media responsible?” The cause marketing campaign aimed to increase sales of the Unilever Dove Product.  Unilever considered this a social responsibility activity. In addition they dabbled with, but didn’t effectively launch a “self esteem” fund for young girls. Although the website presents objectives of the fund, there is nothing evident about its activities or impact.Unilever

Unilever is the same company marketing “Fair and Lovely”, a skin bleaching product targeting young Arab females.  Unilever’s “Fair & Lovely” TV ads show a sad, dark looking middle eastern woman, who isn’t loved, is having a hard time with education and unsuccessful. Upon using Fair&Lovely, her skin tone becomes gradually whiter allowing her to graduate, get a successful job and win the man of her dreams!

Social responsibility must be a strategic decision followed up by coherent, all encompassing and transparent initiatives extending across all products and services, and all marketing communications and sales efforts.  If a teacher treated her students with care and love in one class and resorted to threats and self-esteem lowering tactics in another class, she would certainly be viewed as psychotic. Shouldn’t the same criteria apply to corporations?  When Unilever promotes real beauty with one product, and promotes skin bleaching with another, doesn’t the same apply?

Multinationals and CSR in the MENA region – Part 1

In 1990, McDonald’s stopped using styrofoam packaging in the US due to public pressure, and used this fact to their benefit in highlighting their social responsibility practices on their website today. 19 years later, McDonald’s still use the non-recyclable material across the MENA region for its packaging.  The material in question is styrofoam, made from polystyrene a matter that is not recycled in most U.S. cities, and I suspect isn’t in the MENA region.  Polystyrene takes 900 years to break down in a landfill.  1


The official statement on the McDonald’s website is ” Today, approximately 82% of the consumer packaging used in our nine largest markets is made from renewable materials(paper or wood-fiber), and approximately 30% of the material comes from recycled fiber.”

Social responsibility for Multinationals must be a global initiative.  When a multinational reaps financial benefit from operating in a foreign country, small as the returns maybe, the company implicitly accepts the country and its consumers into its larger stakeholders community. Hence the multinational must be held accountable for in social responsibility initiatives across all regions of operation, large or small.   We all share the same land, water and air sources. Pollution in one part of the world invariably affects other parts.  It is not enough that McDonald’s uses environmentally friendly packaging in its larger markets.

CSR is Indispensable


I was talking to a friend who held a position as a CSR (corporate social responsibility) manager, until last week. She was laid off due to budget cuts. What I found interesting was her attitude towards the matter; “of course CSR will go, why would they need it if they’re having cash flow problems?”. This isn’t the first time I came across this view on the relationship between CSR and budgets. In recent months, I have heard a number of business people including executives link the two proportionally. Why is the link so strong and proportional in people’s mind? Why has CSR become a luxury that corporations can do without at times of financial strife? Shouldn’t a company act responsibly towards its stakeholders irrespective of its financial standing?

The root of the problem is the gross misunderstanding of the term CSR. CSR suggests that corporations have a duty of care to ALL their stakeholders in ALL aspects of their business operations. Stakeholders include shareholders, employees, clients, partners, the community and the environment. CSR requires that a business account for and measure the actual and potential economic, social and environmental impact of its decisions.

CSR goes well beyond philanthropy and is more linked to corporate ethics, values and most importantly behavior. How a business conducts itself with its stakeholders determines the degree of its social responsibility. Furthermore, there is a difference between social responsibility and cause marketing. While CSR describes how a corporation demonstrates responsibility through the practice and policies that govern their production and service delivery, cause marketing leverages a charitable brand to increase sales and support product positioning. Successful cause marketing is done on an ongoing basis through a charity that is strategically aligned with a company’s products or consumer interests.

The proportional association the market has placed between budgets and CSR leads me to conclude that CSR is confused with Cause Marketing. Clearly, if the financial situation marks an economic slowdown, and revenue declines, then marketing budgets can be affected proportionally. A decline in revenue or investment should not absolve corporations from caring for stakeholders. Care does not cost money, but requires thought, planning and commitment. How reckless would we find parents who abandon their children during economic hardship? And how admirable do we find communities that bind together and support each other during times of crisis? The same logic applies to corporations. During hardship, social responsibility becomes indispensable!

Regional Culture, Heritage and Corporate Social Responsibility


To know CSR, you must speak to an elder businessman or woman from the region and you will realize, it is part of our heritage, our culture, our way of life.

Wikipedia defines CSR as “a concept whereby organizations consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, communities and other stakeholders, as well as the environment.”

To date, most efforts I encounter in the UAE fall either in the marketing and PR domain or corporate philanthropy. Few are well planned or take into account more than one member of the stakeholder community. Most, understand it as charity contributions to worthy social causes.

Unfortunately, multinationals that have well developed CSR programs in their home countries and other developed markets, fail to implement even their base-line CSR practices in the UAE. This is evident across industry; hotel groups that pride themselves internationally on their environmentally friendly practices, fail to have a simple recycling program locally; FMCG companies sell products and services in this market that are deemed socially and environmentally irresponsible in other markets, and other examples are plenty.

To know CSR, read about commerce in the region in the past 50, 100 years, even thousand years, dating back to the prophet’s time. Speak to our parent’s generation of tradesman. They treated employees as family members, mentoring the young, taking wisdom from the old, visiting the ill and celebrating momentous family occasions with all. They cared for the environment and understood the balance with nature. They blessed their crops and gave portions of their inventory to the needy to keep the baraka (blessing). They understood that for their business to flourish in a community, they must keep their neighbors happy, respecting their privacy, the cleanliness of their streets and gave them right of way through their land for safe passage. Often tradesmen collaborated to fund community initiatives, from building schools and mosques to paying for the surgery of a less fortunate member of the community. Tradesmen served as advisors to their local government and hosted government official gatherings in their homes.

The Qu’ran has several references to private property and the social and environmental responsibility of private property owners. “It should neither be used wastefully nor in a way that will deprive others of their justly acquired property (2:188). When one holds the property of others in trust, for example for orphans, one should not divert it to one’s personal benefit (2:2; 4:10), but one should not turn over one’s own property to those incapable of managing it (2:5). When orphans mature they should be given control of their own property (2:6). Property rights of women are as sacred as those of men in other cases as well (4:24, 4:32)”1

To understand corporate social responsibility, look within, look to our culture, our heritage, our faith.

1 Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad –

Our vision…

To encourage innovation and sustainable business practices – financial, social and environmental – through the companies that we help create and grow as well as in the wider business community through CSR thought leadership and advisory services.