Scotiabank’s outgoing CEO, Richard Young, recently made a call for more accountability from local NGOs. A concise reply was published in last week’s Business Guardian by Mr Colin Robinson. In it he makes the general point that government and most businesses see NGOs as “volunteers...begging a bread.” My experience, with over a half dozen NGOs, spanning more than 30 years, is exactly the same. The philosophy of corporate social responsibility (CSR), as pointed out in the UNDP publication of 26 June, 2012: The View from the Boardroom, CEO Study on Corporate Social Responsibility in Trinidad and Tobago, with some key exceptions, remains largely one of theoretical interest. This is unfortunate because without NGOs, civil society in T&T would not be able to survive. The report summarises opinions about CSR from over 50 local CEOS, ranging from large corporations like ANSA McAL, Republic Bank, bpTT and Phoenix Park Gas Processors to smaller entities, Hi-Lo Food Stores, Anthony P Scott, Eastern Credit Union and McCann Erikson and so on.
The first finding was that there was: “Little evidence for a substantive shift towards more strategic forms of CSR: while CSR has undoubtedly become a more familiar feature within the local business community with a high level of acceptance of the idea and concept behind the practice, the commitments made by senior managers towards corporate social engagement remain largely philanthropic in nature. More than two-thirds of all respondents name charitable giving and events sponsorship as the areas that their CSR outreach was most reflected in.” The ancient concept of “charity,” as in “give them teddy bears,” is alive and kicking in T&T. If that can be allied with something seen to be pleasant in the eyes of the public, like a fete match in the Oval, complete with dancing girls, sponsorship is a certainty. That’s a reality and our CEOs are not afraid to say so. Some may be proud of themselves. A second major finding was that of a “continuously strong focus on public relations and reputation management as main drivers of CSR: a further indication of the unchanged philanthropic nature of CSR in Trinidad and Tobago (my emphasis) is the fact that an overwhelming 96.8 per cent of all CEOs interviewed for the report named brand, trustworthiness and reputation as being among the most important drivers for their CSR activities. Only 11.4 per cent mentioned increased competitiveness as a motivating factor for their social engagement.”
Money, though a problem for most NGOs, is not the main one. Mr Robinson puts it best: “Financial reports don’t produce themselves. If we continue the current culture of restricting funding to ‘project costs,’ a grant-making practice that provides NGOs money for neither staffing nor the core business costs of running our organisations, our organisations will fail to find sustainable support for the quality leadership and management that good governance and accountability require.” A prime example of this is the annual audit. Most NGOs are run by volunteers together with a few badly-paid part-time office staff. Every single NGO I have been associated with—and there are some very useful ones doing the work that government should be doing—is years behind in its auditing. You simply cannot get anyone to do your audit for free any more. I support Mr Robinson’s suggestion that a shared accounting facility could be developed and made available to NGOs at low cost. I give the example of one of my NGOs. By dint of hard work, over, the last 35 years, they have made themselves responsible for an aspect of human health in T&T which is recognised by UNICEF and WHO as key for good health and therefore human development. They have a board of directors which is completely voluntary and includes both health professionals and business people.
They have three part-time staff who run, with the assistance of another group of volunteers and two sympathetic doctors, and tri-weekly clinics in three locations in Trinidad (north, east and south), with another to come soon in Tobago. This is in addition to a free daily telephone consultation service for mothers through their network of counsellors. They run a Facebook page and have their own Web site. They attend clinics at the major public hospitals in North Trinidad. They function as consultants to the Ministry of Health at any update, seminar or review of any official position paper in their area of expertise and their printed material is often used by the ministry. In addition they function as the public watchdog for industry mistakes and are continuously in liaison with other similar international agencies. Up to three years ago, they did this with a grant of $5,000 a year from the ministry. Office overhead is $200,000 a year. How they have been able to survive and progress is another story. They are not unique. Almost every NGO in T&T faces the same challenge. Simply calling for more accountability is a cop-out. We need more than teddy bears. We need to partner.