While Zimbabwean businesses generally accept that they have some responsibility to the communities in which they operate, the country’s business sector has not been particularly generous towards the non-profit sector and there has been little attempt to concert corporate responses to pressing social problems.
There are a number of reasons for this: Zimbabwe does not have legislation encouraging company involvement in social responsibility programmes; prior to the 1990s, there was little interest in CSR; and, perhaps most importantly, amidst a growing economic crisis, companies have been preoccupied with their own survival.
During the 1990s, a number of developments took place that both raised the profile of the company and provided benefit to the community. Zimbabwe’s largest mobile phone operator, Econet, set up the Capernaum Trust in 1996 to cater for its corporate social programmes through which the company invested in the community as an acknowledgement of the immense public support from which it benefited at the time of its formation. According to Econet, the Trust is designed to enable the company to have a clearly defined donations policy. In establishing it, the company set a sector-wide trend and example. Many companies, including Barclays, Standard Chartered and Kingdom Banks, followed suit with a number of business-in-the-community vehicles. As well as the multinationals, some Zimbabwe-based companies are involved in CSR programmes.
Some social investment programmes involve private companies working through an NGO to identify the cases of greatest need in society, for example the building of a village school. These programmes tend to result from a feeling of obligation on the part of the company towards a particular community that has supported it throughout the year. However, the prevailing economic situation has forced many companies to concentrate on their own survival.
Much corporate giving used to come in the form of scholarships and support for institutions such as children’s homes but that trend has changed, with some companies getting involved in big projects such as fighting diseases like malaria, cholera and HIV/AIDS and participating in community construction projects such as schools or clinics.
The clearest attempt at an organized sector-wide CSR programme came in 2003 when the business sector signed up to the establishment of the Zimbabwe Business Forum against HIV/AIDS, which coordinated the response of businesses to the pandemic. The Forum is designed to harness funds to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the workplace, which has the clear benefit to companies of safeguarding labour in the process.
In spite of some positive developments, however, Zimbabwe still lags behind when it comes to CSR. While a few company CEOs have been working with NGOs to try to arouse corporate interest in the sector, and attempts have been made to change how companies conduct their social responsibility programmes, planning of such programmes is still rooted in publicity seeking. Government remains generally inactive in promoting CSR beyond the promise of a tax cut, the onus of applying for which lies with companies themselves.
All in all, CSR initiatives remain piecemeal and principally self-interested. Zimbabwe has the potential to build corporate support for the non-profit sector to the same level as where South Africa is now, but before this can happen, business interest in the non-profit sector, which is considerable and increasing, needs to be harnessed and strategically directed.
Obert Matawha is an independent journalist and researcher working in Zimbabwe’s non-profit sector. Email firstname.lastname@example.org