Twenty delegates from 12 countries in Anglophone Africa recently came together at a three-day conference in Stellenbosch in the Republic of South Africa to identify ways to promote ethics and corporate responsibility across the continent. Delegates represented the private, public and professional sectors. The event was sponsored by the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind and was hosted by the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA).
“The starting point for the conference was that current levels of organisational ethics and responsibility in both the private and public sectors are not satisfactory across the region, especially when one compares it with global best practice,” says Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of EthicsSA. “Given the global sustainability challenges we face, we need to find ways of making our organisations more responsible to society.”
Over the course of the event, delegates identified seven strategies for promoting ethical and responsible corporate behaviour.
One set of strategies broadly related to helping individual members of public and private organisations transform themselves. To change mind-sets requires a number of difficult conversations to be held within the organisation and then with its stakeholders. These conversations would include interaction between businesses, between business and the public sector, between business and labour, NGOs and so on—all with the aim of sensitising them to their own role and their responsibility to society.
Allied strategies would include formal education for leaders at universities and business schools; and informal “training” to make civil society aware of its role in keeping organisations and institutions accountable for their actions. Collective engagement and collaboration across the public and private sectors and civil society was a further strategy.
Delegates also identified the need for ethical leaders to create a peer group. This peer group within and across the professions would reinforce the message of ethics and responsibility and, critically, provide leaders with mutual support from people facing the same challenges.
At a more formal organisational level, delegates noted that ethics and corporate responsibility needed to be integrated into formal governance structures within organisations. “The social and ethics committees formed in response to the new Companies Act in South Africa are examples of how these issues can become part of organisational structures,” Professor Rossouw notes.
Voluntary and mandatory standards both have roles to play. In Anglophone Africa, it is often the case that regulatory regimes are not enforced. Voluntary corporate governance codes, like the ones we see in Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa and in other African countries, can have a major impact on setting best practice standards for private and public sector organisations. Voluntary commitments can then be used as a lever to strengthen existing policies and laws.
A final strategy is to use technology (social media in particular) as a way of communicating on ethics and responsibility within society as a whole as well as with special interest groups. The delegates were clear that mobile phones offered the most widely available platform across Africa. They also expressed the need for a common and global narrative focusing on responsibility as the basis for a renewed social contract. The idea of advocating for an Universal Declaration on Human Responsibilities as the third pillar of International Law was also introduced.
Delegates identified several constraints to building a culture of ethics and social responsibility. Among them were the lack of networks that cut across the public, private and professional sectors; and the fact that organisations tended to deal with ethics and social responsibility separately, with little contact between the relevant departments.
“The conference was an excellent opportunity to initiate the kind of far-reaching, cross-sectoral conversations that Africans will need to have in order to strengthen ethics and corporate responsibility,” concludes Professor Rossouw. “It’s a process, and it’s exciting that it has begun.”
USB Executive Development Ltd is an Academic partner of Ethics SA.