KIOS 20 years – celebrating the achievements and the unyielding nature of human rights work
KIOS partner UCCA in the spotlight.
Popularizing Corporate Social Responsibility as a Social License to Operate in Uganda: What about Corporate Accountability?
“Corporate accountability has to be more than mere voluntary acts of good will.” This is one crucial issue,which we at the Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability underline. The quote below is one example of such individual acts of corporate social responsibility, which make us forget the bigger picture of corporate accountability.
“As a Ugandan owned company.., our contributions back to the society and environment are not only on par with some of the recognized multinationals operating in Uganda, but have received various accolades and praises from a range of underprivileged community. Some CSR activities undertaken within the past 2 years [include] heart surgery operations.., schools constructed…,contribution of UGX 20 million towards construction of Children and Youth Centre project…, Scholarships…, [and] donation to the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped worth US$ 5,000. Moreover, alarmingly, your field researcher did not do any research on the lack of access to medical facilities within the community. For your knowledge, we have agreed to construct a Health Centre, which previously the State had been promising but failed to deliver owing to bureaucracy…”. – Company response to some corporate abuses attributed to its operations, highlighted in the UCCA 2016 Baseline Study Report.
In 2016, the Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability (UCCA) conducted a baseline study on the effects and impact of corporate activities on human rights. In the final report “The State of Corporate Accountability in Uganda,” the report highlights the increasing conflation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate accountability. Many corporate entities operating in Uganda have employed the advancement of CSR undertakings as a social license to operate within mostly marginalized communities.
The 2016 report identified a number of companies—highlighting the effects of their operations on enjoyment of human rights. One of the issues reported was that of the impact of stone quarrying activities in Mukono District in the central region. During the field study, the UCCA team interacted with the local government in the area and affected communities, who both noted a number of positive impacts the companies have had in the area, including employment opportunities, provision of material support to residents in the construction of water sources, schools and burials sites. The primary school in the area also reported receiving support in the connection of electricity to the school, provision of toys for children and financial contribution towards the construction of a water tank.
That notwithstanding, the community also noted a number of negative impacts at the hands of the stone quarrying activities, including environmental degradation and air, noise and water pollution. The community also noted the unsafe, unhealthy and hazardous living conditions brought about by the continuous disruption of living conditions due to periodic stone blasts that require all people to move approximately 2 kilometers away from the stone quarry. They also noted the damages their houses have faced due to the stone blasts. It was these issues that the report noted, which triggered the opening extract from the 80 paged response from the company.
Increasingly, many companies in Uganda operating in natural resource exploitation, manufacturing and service industries, rely on popular traits of CSR as granting them the social license to operate especially within marginalized communities and also permitting them leeway to abuse some human rights as long as there are some CSR engagements in the community. It is largely employed as a tradeoff for accountability for corporate human rights abuses. CSR remains very popular in Uganda—especially within rural affected communities who find it difficult to access basic services in health, education and other infrastructural amenities. The failure of the State to ensure provision of such services has often meant that private actors, in most cases, corporate entities come in to fill the gaps as reported above and use these engagements to manipulate affected communities from holding them accountable in case of abuse of human rights.
In a recent field visit to the sugarcane growing communities in Luuka District, the UCCA team was confronted with the same popular stances around CSR as an undertone against pursuit of corporate accountability in cases of corporate abuses. Discussions with a number of affected communities and local government authorities were always quick to downplay some corporate abuses in the sector, with a quick “at least that company maintains the road network” or “the company constructed a laboratory at the community secondary school,” after highlighting a corporate abuse.
Sugarcane companies and sugarcane out-growers associations are accused of rising child labor cases and increasing land conflicts in the area among others. However, it is these references that reinforce the broader tradeoff between CSR and accountability. In most of such cases, companies are forgiven where their activities negatively impact on enjoyment of human rights, if the community has benefited from some form of CSR engagement. Such companies know the popularity of these CSR activities that they continuously highlight the same even where there are demands for accountability as highlighted in the opening company response.
Business enterprises operating in resource rich rural areas have capitalized on these engagements to ‘capture’ local authorities, undermine policy and legal frameworks and manipulate communities as a way of driving their operations within these poor, illiterate and impoverished communities in total disregard of accountability mechanisms. In light of failures of the government to ensure provision of basic services, corporate actors fill in the gaps in access of some essential services in health, education and infrastructural development as a way of maintaining their operations in the community even where they are not operating within the confines of the law.
The UCCA has underscored these developments and with support of development partners such as KIOS, developed projects and strategies of building capacities of affected communities to appreciate business and human rights principles and start designing initiatives of demanding for accountability in the face of corporate abuses of human rights. The concept of CSR vis-à-vis accountability is of great interest to the Consortium and one that drives our community engagement initiatives—unpacking its tenets with different corporations to enhance its appreciation in implementation of different activities.
CSR has overtime been understood to be synonymous with corporations engaging with the communities in which they operate, usually connoting charitable acts. The UCCA and partners have undertaken activities geared at reinforcing the corporate responsibility to respect human rights beyond voluntary acts of CSR. The KIOS supported “Popularizing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to Enhance Corporate Accountability in Uganda” project is at the heart of these community engagements unpacking corporate accountability principles. These have been largely targeted towards community-based organizations (CBOs) in resource rich areas, media practitioners to fully appreciate these concepts and the normative content of economic social and cultural rights and local government authorities to help in the enforcement of human rights in their areas of operations. It is believed that these engagements will clearly clarify the variances between CSR and accountability with an intention to enhance corporate accountability in Uganda.
The UCCA guided by its theory of change and strategy, reaffirms that CSR engagements are mere voluntary mechanisms geared at giving back to the community and lack the binding element of corporate accountability as envisaged in both the domestic and international legal frameworks. To ensure the protection of, and respect for, human rights by business and corporations, accountability must go beyond voluntarism. Whereas, it is increasingly necessary to recognize that both corporate responsibility and accountability are essential elements and key drivers to ensure economic and sustainable development, we however, reiterate that CSR cannot be used as a tradeoff against corporate accountability. Article 20 (2) of the 1995 Uganda Constitution enjoins the state to ensure that non-state actors including corporate entities respect human rights and this doesn’t make any special note of variance for any such actors that may show or have a good track record in CSR engagements as a substitute to demands of accountability.
Uganda Consortium on Corporate Accountability (UCCA)
UCCA was founded in August 2015. The core of UCCA’s work is in enhancing and coordinating the multilevel advocacy and cooperation of different actors in questions of corporate accountability in Uganda. The Consortium works especially though monitoring and documentation, research and advocacy, and through strengthening human rights skills of grass-roots actors. Ugandan Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) acts as UCCA’s secretariat. KIOS has supported the work of ISER since 2014 and the work of UCCA since 2017. UCCA work supported by KIOS has the main goal of promoting the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In addition, the work also enhances the capacities and awareness of UCCA members and other relevant stakeholders on issues of corporate accountability.
For further information contact:
Arnold Kwesiga, Coordinator, UCCA
Twitter for UCCA: https://twitter.com/UccaUg
Text and pictures by UCCA
The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of KIOS.
This article is part of celebrating KIOS 20 years and sharing voices from our partners in the Global South.