Whether by corporate social responsibility (CSR) or some other label, companies increasingly recognize the benefit of using their resources to improve quality of life in the communities in which they operate or upon which their supply chains depend. For some this includes countries that are hotspots of instability and violent extremist activities. But most shy away from openly acknowledging that confronting or mitigating these threats is an objective of their CSR efforts.
Promoting economic empowerment, access to education and stronger health systems in any community are important objectives. Their absence is often a driver enabling extremist exploitation. There is no question that extremist-fueled conflicts put local education, health and other critical social networks at risk. Yet reluctance to recognize the linkages between CSR and violent extremism buries the lead on a story that could be about corporate impact on a defining social problem of our time – and one that also affects companies’ bottom lines.
“If schools, clinics or small businesses supported by CSR initiatives can’t function safely or effectively, shareholders’ resources invested in them are wasted.”
Many CSR programs are designed to lift up communities in discrete ways. This can be in the form of immunization programs, micro-finance, literacy, and other projects. Each address important quality of life issues. But they are not necessarily attuned to how quality of life deficits become part of the currency of conflict for extremist movements. Making that connection more clearly and openly may increase the impact of CSR efforts. It may also provide a more overt counter-narrative to what extremist groups are saying and doing.
Failing to frame their efforts to increase community resiliency as, in part, a counterweight to violent extremism also misses another opportunity. C-suites can demonstrate to boards and shareholders that they are taking action against a major threat to the business of the business. Violent extremism puts companies’ people, facilities, and other capital investments at risk. It creates disruptions in the continuity of operations. Many global corporations recognize this and capture it in their 10-K filings. The next step is to acknowledge that these risks are addressable by a different kind of engagement with the communities in which they work. The difference is shaping that engagement to confront the source of the risk.
Conflict born of violent extremism also undermines CSR programs themselves. By inaction or silence regarding those conflicts, companies can lose in multiple ways. One is in terms of messaging, with extremists able to cast corporate community investment programs as cynical efforts to mask exploitation and implicit local cooperation with “colonial” powers. Another is in terms of impact, with the good of the programs undone by the outbreaks of localized violence. The latter outcome drops to the bottom line: if schools, clinics, or small businesses supported by CSR initiatives can’t function safely or effectively, shareholders’ resources invested in them are wasted.
What might CSR initiatives specifically focused on countering extremism look like, as distinct from broader community-betterment initiatives that are relevant to but silent about the objective? Consider programs that promote confidence-building and communication between local populations and government security forces. Creating or funding platforms that promote the voices and programs of local community-building entities. Supporting education programs that promulgate alternatives to divisive philosophies in extremist messaging.
There is no denying that this is scary. Perhaps companies see overtly confronting violent extremism as increasing their risk profile. But are there countervailing benefits that make the risk worth it to the company and its board and shareholders? Yes. Building goodwill with the community and strengthening relationships with local authorities improves a company’s business position in the local market. Boosting local advocates’ viability in the face of extremist challengers enhances the prospects for continuity of operations.
Of course, it is not a simple black-and-white calculus to bring countering violent extremism into CSR as an objective. The reality is that some of the best prevention programs are not done in the name of this objective. In Pakistan or Algeria, for example, talking about political violence is taboo and can marginalize the exact population that the programs are trying to help. If they are not already involved, adding experts with deep local expertise into the decision-making about CSR efforts will be important for companies considering stepping up to this challenge.
At one point companies hesitated to acknowledge the linkages of their CSR efforts to controversial issues like climate change, or to any bottom line objective. While that has receded, there is still too often a view of CSR as a distraction from “the business of the business.” We can see the tide shifting on this, and it is now time to broaden the focus. By acknowledging the risk of violent extremism to business, a window opens to explore how CSR programs can and should be amplified and expanded to more explicitly tackle this global risk.