A partnership with academia

Building knowledge for trade and development


The Virtual Institute and Colombian member, EAFIT University, organized a workshop and round table discussion on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Latin America November 19 in Medellin, Colombia.

Based on a joint project sponsored by the Government of Spain, the workshop highlighted the work of researchers from universities in Chile, Colombia Spain, and Uruguay, who examined the mining industry in Chile, the banana industry in Colombia, CSR practices in Uruguay and new legislative initiatives in the Latin American region. The results were presented at a session attended by approximately 60 academics from the region.

Participants of CSR workshop in ColombiaThe event consisted of two sessions: Academic Session in the morning and a Round Table discussion in the afternoon. The morning session was attended by an audience of approximately 60, the afternoon by 40.

Academic Session
The Academic Session was opened by Juan Luis Mejia, EAFIT rector, followed by Rafael Garcia, Spanish Consul in Medellín, and Fleur Claessens, UNCTAD Virtual Institute (Vi). All three speakers highlighted the importance of discussing CSR in the Latin American region and hoped the event would set the scene for future discussion and collaboration.

The purpose of the academic session was to present the results of the UNCTAD Vi joint research project on CSR in the Latin American region.

Federico Lavopa from the University of Barcelona presented his paper written jointly with Ramon Torrent on “Strengthening enforcement of core labour rights: Can a new investment agreement model help multinational corporations be more socially responsible?” Lavopa explained aspects of the historical context of the existing investment and economic trade agreements. He underlined that these agreements are difficult to enforce and that governments encounter problems in their efforts to regulate multinationals. He also stressed the importance of including labour rights and environmental issues in investment agreements. Lavopa emphasized the necessity of having an international solution to balance the rights and duties of host countries, investors and home countries.

Natalia Melgar from the University of the Republic, Uruguay, presented a paper entitled “Corporate Social Responsibility in Uruguay. What enterprises do and what people think about it.” This paper was the result of a joint research exercise between Melgar, Zuleika Ferre and Maximo Rossi. Melgar explained that enterprises are gradually moving towards making greater emphasis on environment protection, employees' and communities' welfare. With this in mind, her research team surveyed a number of enterprises and the communities they are operating in, in an endeavour to find out what people know and think about CSR in Uruguay. Melgar explained that companies tend to perceive CSR as work they carry out for the communities and as corporate concern for environmental issues, whereas society (communities) tends to view employers’ benefits as CSR. The knowledge of CSR is limited and surprisingly companies tend to be more critical among themselves with regard to their CSR policies than society around them. Melgar concluded that the results were influenced by four factors: (a) the role of education and the age (b) the socio-economic status; (c) levels of unemployment; and (d) place of residence. Young people and people with higher level of education appreciate CSR policies more and consider them when they are buying products, people with lower incomes, those who are unemployed and those living outside Montevideo tend to be more negative about CSR and are not much concerned about CSR policies.

The discussant Jonathan Barton wrapped up the first part of the academic session highlighting how these presentations provide a first step for the LA region to gain awareness and understanding of CSR issues and the need for a revised global framework allowing governments and society to verify what companies are doing with regard to CSR. Barton also stressed the need for new domestic, regional and international agreements with a “compliance plus” element going beyond the law and moving from charity actions to actions that are really responsible and ethical. Connecting with Melgar's presentation, he stressed the need for reliable data and thorough analysis to measure, compare and define where we stand and what actions to undertake. In particular universities should play a major role in the consolidation of CSR and good practices.

The second part of the academic session presented two case studies examining the role of CSR in the mining industry and the banana industry. Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez from EAFIT University (Colombia) presented her paper entitled “Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility - Evidence of Social Responsibility Networks (SRN) in the banana industry." Gonzalez-Perez clarified the concept of CSR, its context and evolution focusing on the changes that occurred during the 1990s. In her presentation, she proposed the introduction of products that are considered “guilt free”, referring to the manner banana companies respect labour rights, protect the environment and help the communities. She stressed the need for an SRN approach underlining the importance of involving all stakeholders to facilitate effective implementation of CSR, such as international civil society, governmental and intergovernmental agencies, local trade unions, community-based organizations, the church and governmental bodies, as well as multinational corporations.

The morning session continued with Paz Milet from the University of Chile who presented her paper on “Corporate Social Responsibility in Mining Industry in Chile: The case of Los Pelambres and los Bronces”. Milet emphasized the importance of the mining sector in the Chilean economy (representing 10 per cent of GDP and around 50 per cent of export). However, CSR aspects have not been discussed at a wide scale in Chile. The two sites were selected for the study because of their high level of copper production, their proximity to Santiago and their CSR policies, which have earned them the most sustainable industries' records in Chile in 2008. Milet explained that in the 1990s the mining industry faced huge competition and in order to attract employees it was necessary to invest in the improvement of working conditions for them. She highlighted that the main challenges for the companies are the sustainability and the continuity of the resources, providing better conditions for employees, the need for innovation in production methods and the new membership of Chile in the OECD.

The discussant Barton talked about the lack of clarity as to the expectations society has regarding CSR policies. The ISO 26000 is expected to be a useful tool and a parameter for the regulation of these issues. He underlined the importance of thinking in a creative and innovative way in relation to CSR as well as the challenges ahead to address CSR issues properly in a world where even many of the minimum standards are ignored. In his view, it is a big mistake to regard CSR as only of concern to companies when it is a general topic that affects everyone. In relation to the case study described by Milet, he also underlined the importance of the companies to be aware of the reality of their communities and the need of local social development. The companies should have a clear view of their role in the society and how to act responsibly in order to assure sustainability and a good future. Companies need to think ahead to anticipate changes and development. Otherwise, in the case of the mining in Chile, what would happen when they reach 2070 with 10% less of water in the area? This will affect both the community and the company. To conclude, Barton again underlined the importance of a dialogue and the need to work together.

To close the morning session, Anthony Miller provided a quick summary and thanked all the participants and EAFIT.

Round table
The afternoon round table was entitled "CSR and labor practices in the agriculture and extractive industries." For this session, the event had with a panel consisting of the moderator Gabriel Mesa Cardenas, a lawyer and well known Colombian consultant on CSR; Sandra Hernandez, a sales and international executive from "Amichocó" and the programme "Oro Verde," Andres Castro, a planning and social Development leader from "Fedepalma;" Sergio Alberto Pérez García, a member of "Fundauniban;" John Dario Longas Alzate, the Innovation and project manager form "Codesarrollo,",and Jonathan Barton.

First, Castro presented the palm industry and their ongoing work on securing housing facilities for their employees and communities, as well as health and education benefits. To maximize their efforts, they work with alliances and frequently open dialogues to asses needs and interests of employees.

Hernandez, representing Amichocó (Fundación Amigos del Chocó), presented the hardships and challenges faced by communities in the Choco region in Colombia. She talked about a programme called "Oro Verde" (Green Gold) that endeavours to have a artisanal mining industry that guarantees not only better sustainability for the environment but also for the community by teaching them how to work in a more sustainable manner and financing social programmes to enable better education and improved health conditions. The idea is to sell this gold in the international market at a price 10% above the one in the local market and to raise awareness of the social community projects involved when consumers buy this particular gold in comparison to that from the competitor. Socially responsible jewellers and consumers prefer to buy this gold. An alliance for responsible mining was created, which seeks to replicate and adapt the “Oro Verde” Programme in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The session was continued by Pérez Garcia who presented a video showing the banana industry in Colombia and its CSR policies, especially through a cooperation programme they have with the Netherlands. He continued by explaining how Fundauniban defines CSR and its particular policies and activities. The presentation showed the need for the improvement of the conditions for workers through the construction of proper sanitary services in the plantation, provision of better uniforms and working conditions, extension of other benefits, such as education and health services, to their families, as well as providing better infrastructure and ensuring land protection. In addition, local companies need to be better equipped to face international challenges such as production in compliance with international certifications and health regulations.

The last speaker was Longas, who presented Codesarrollo, a private company that recycles plastic. The company works closely with the community in order to recuperate plastic for the industry. They have also taken on board employees that used to belong to armed groups, in order to stabilize the social structures and offer people a legal and ethical option to gain money. They have slowly progressed and made partnerships not only with recognized plastic companies but also with the Government and its cooperation and social agency. However, Longas emphasized that there is a lack of proper know-how to undertake larger scale projects and that cooperation and support from international organizations and governments could be improved.

The round table was followed by a question and answer session. A wide range of topics were brought to the table such as the lack of equity in employment, the rejection of certain groups of people, wide scale corruption, lack of support from the governments, territorial problems in Colombia, bad image of the industries, etc. It was clear for everyone that the Universities have to play a bigger role and supply more information and awareness on the topic, that society and consumers are also responsible for demanding companies to act responsibly and go beyond minimum CSR standards.

The Vi - EAFIT workshop in Medellin on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the first of its kind in Latin America, provided a unique platform to discuss CSR among a broad spectrum of stakeholders. The research presented was important in terms of information sharing and awareness-raising about an important but so far not very well covered research area in Latin America. It is expected that the meeting and the ensuing publication will provide the basis for future academic research and data comparison with other countries within the region.

For more information (in Spanish), take a look at EAFIT's blog. To view workshop videos, visit the event's website.