Sharing the gains
Oxfam works to help businesses understand that when they include communities in their strategy, everybody wins
- Published: 9/09/2013 at 11:31 AM
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Economic growth has done much to reduce absolute poverty in Thailand. According to the world bank, the poverty rate has dropped from a peak of 42% of the population in 2000 to 13% in 2011.
But the fruits of growth have not been enjoyed equally by all. Measurements of income inequality are little changed over the past two decades despite steady economic expansion. As the gap between the rich and poor widens, social and political instability is inevitable, not just in Thailand but elsewhere in the region.
For Cherian Mathews, the Asia regional director for Oxfam, growth alone clearly will not solve the problem of inequality, the income gap and social marginalisation.
“You need inclusive, sustainable development. ... If this uneven growth continues, it will slow down poverty reduction and we will see more social unrest. It's already happening in the region,” he said.
Mathews: ‘‘Companies initiating CSR and sustainability programme should look inward.’’ THANARAK KHOONTON
One of the world's most prominent non-government organisations, Oxfam was founded in Oxford, England with an initial focus on famine relief. It now works across the world with a focus on gender inequality, poverty reduction and addressing inequality and injustice.
Mr Mathews said Oxfam worked with local communities, NGO partners, governments and the private sector to seek ways to ease poverty and inequality.
“If you look at Asean and Thailand, there are two or three causes or challenges to poverty: inequality, social exclusion and vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change,” he said.
“We engage with the private sector to help provide market access, credit and skills to poor communities.”
Growing awareness of sustainability issues has proved a tremendous benefit to NGOs in helping support development initiatives and pushing for change.
“When we talk about sustainability and CSR, it's fundamentally about how a business acts responsibly and sustainably in its core operations. Businesses need to think about their business model and core operations,” Mr Mathews said.
“It's a fundamental challenge for us to convince companies to relook at their core operations and adapt sustainable business practices. Corporate philanthropy continues to be important, but long-term change requires more. Businesses need to be both inclusive and responsible.”
The goal is to achieve win-win solutions and “triple bottom line” gains for companies which increasingly recognise that besides financial profits, the environment and social justice must also be part of their core objectives.
“For instance, in Bangladesh, we worked with one chili powder manufacturer to engage with local chili farmers. As a result, they achieved better quality, better standards, enhanced productivity and profit,” Mr Mathews said.
“It's building understanding and awareness among companies that it's not just the environment, but also the people.”
Oxfam also plays an important role in encouraging policymakers to create a favourable environment to foster change, whether it be in the area of tax policies or environmental standards.
The issue faced by Thailand and other countries in Asia is not the lack of regulations, but rather implementation and enforcement, Mr Mathews said.
He suggested that companies seeking to initiate CSR and sustainability programmes first look inward.
“Before looking outside, you need to look inside and ensure that your own business operations are responsible and sustainable,” he said. “If that's already in place, then the next step is to engage NGOs, government and communities in development planning.”
Companies should consider their own strengths and skills when prioritising their activities and interacting with communities.
“Communities generally know what they need. Often they need skills more than capital,” said Mr Mathews.
After more than two decades of work in the development sector, Mr Mathews said he felt more optimistic these days about the pace of change. “Consumers are more aware in the digital age, and are increasingly asking for more accountability, particularly the young middle class.”
Social media and the speed at which developments can race around the world have also heightened the pressure on companies and governments to be good citizens and take responsibility for the impact of their actions.
“Still, I think we need more passion, passion to challenge the status quo and unequal power relations. We need to stand up against injustice.”
About the author
- Writer: Chiratas Nivatpumin
Position: Managing Editor