The FINANCIAL interviewed Robert Watkins, UN Resident Coordinator, regarding the CSR adoption and implementation by local and international companies in Georgia.
The Global Compact was first announced by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in an address to The World Economic Forum on January 31, 1999, and was officially launched at UN Headquarters in New York on July 26, 2000. As of 2006, it includes more than 3 300 companies from all regions of the world, as well as around 1 000 labour and civil society organizations worldwide.
The United Nations Global Compact is an initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on them. Under the Compact, companies are brought together with UN agencies, labour groups and civil society.
Since its start in December 2006, the Global Compact Georgia network represents a place for Georgian companies to share the best practices, advance the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility among the business community and implement respective policies in the companies.
Q. The United Nations has been working for promoting peace worldwide, supporting development of a sustainable environment and eliminating poverty worldwide. Recently, the UN seems to have been working with the private sector more actively. Since when did the United Nations start introducing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principles in Georgia?
A. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan started this program seven years ago at the Davos summit in Switzerland. The point he wanted to make is that businesses are the most important engine for economic growth. If you want to have development in a country you have to get businesses behind it.
No matter what the government is doing and however many good development projects there are, still nothing’s going to happen unless businesses become sufficiently empowered to expand their operations, recruit people and increase their business productivity.
If we use the statistics, 90% of the overall economic development is done by the private sector. Logically, the focus should be directed in this direction.
Since December 2006 we have started up a local branch of the Global Compact, which is the idea that was developed by Kofi Annan. It’s been almost a year that we have had this program. Though even before, we were in close touch with the local private sector. This is just a structure, a framework which allows us to make it more sophisticated.
Q. Bank Republic, People’s Bank of Georgia, Caucasus Financial Services, BP, Wissol, Teliani Valley, PA Government Services, GPI Holding, Pfizer, Tserovani, Nikora, Agritechnics, Healthy Water, UGT, ARCI, - this is the short list of Global Compact members in Georgia. What are the membership criteria and what are the responsibilities member-companies get charged with?
A. There are around 3 thousand companies worldwide being Global Compact members. In Georgia we have 32 so far. These companies don’t have to do anything but subscribe to the principles that the Global Compact is promoting, which is basically the corporate social responsibility. It means that they respect international child labour, limit pollution of the environment; they’re not involved in corruption and they do implement the kinds of good practices that we try to spread throughout the world.
CSR is absolutely a volunteer activity, the only thing the Global Compact member companies have to do is to provide an annual report demonstrating the practices they’ve been using over the last year. But it’s not a financial account or anything like that; it’s a narrative account of the corporate social activities they’ve been implementing.
Q. How difficult is it to lead the CSR public awareness campaign in less developed countries with immature markets where the concept of responsibility is still unfamiliar to the local community?
A. I watched interesting news on the TV this morning. I saw a big conference on diamonds in Belgium. The diamond industry is very well known for very unsavoury practices in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where not only is child labour used but they’re exported illegally and mined by opposition groups who use the money to buy arms and weapons. The Head of the International Diamond Association was delivering a speech to all the member companies to adopt CSR ideas. The way he presented the ideas was very impressive. He said that the main reason we should follow CSR and disapprove the above-mentioned illegal business is that it’s immoral to be promoting this kind of insecurity and criminality and we have a responsibility not to be doing it. Number two, it’s against the law and number three-our clients want us to behave this way.
I think companies are learning that it’s not only a good policy for them to be adopting CSR principles but increasingly the people who will be buying their products want to know the companies they’re purchasing products from are practising these very good CSR programs. It builds confidence in the purchasers of your products, builds loyalty and the result will be a raise of your profits, which is what business is about. It may take some cuts at the beginning in adopting the principles, it’s in the companies’ long term interest to be the part of CSR.
Q. EU countries like France already have CSR legislation in place requiring major companies to report on their social and ethical performance. Are there any works conducted on CSR legislation in Georgia?
A. I don’t think there are any works started in this respect in Georgia yet. But this government is a reforming government and they’re implementing all kinds of reforms which are consistent in terms of CSR. Most important is the anticorruption approach as the Georgian government’s making a big effort in this regard.
We think that’s consistent with the ideas of CSR but our strategy is more about some kind of knowledge in the private sector about what CSR is. Clients ask companies to adopt CSR but we want companies to start asking the government to adopt the legislation which will make these practices better. Georgia already has rules against child labour but still very weak rules on pollution, that’s an important area to be looked at.
Q. What do you think is the role of the media in promoting Corporate Social Responsibility?
A. Everything we international organizations do relies a great deal on the media as a means of communicating the message. This interview is an example of it as it gives us an opportunity to speak to the private sector as well as with the public.
We’re also working with NGOs in Georgia and in other countries to increase public awareness of what CSR is. Recently we had a survey and asked the civil society organizations to undertake the idea together with what the public attitude was about it. The media plays an important role in sending out that message.
Q. The Forbes’ article of June 2007 reads: The world's business schools should be more proactive in promoting corporate social responsibility in their teaching programs, according to the United Nations Global Compact initiative. Do business schools in Georgia give adequate education? Are you involved in promoting CSR education locally?
A. If you want to develop the country, you have to develop what you’ve got and what’s going to be coming in. The new leaders of tomorrow are the children of today. So that’s why it’s important that this message is conveyed to them from as early a stage as possible.
Your government is very young and many of its members have been educated in the Western universities where CSR is a part of the business school agenda. That’s something we’re increasingly looking forward to seeing here in Georgia. We already have three universities: Caucasus University, Georgia-American University and ESM-Tbilisi, that are members of the Global Compact.
Q. October 24 is UN Day. How will it be celebrated in Georgia? Could you assess the UN story in Georgia since 1993? What are the top success developments?
A. This year we decided to have an HIV theme. Although Georgia’s not a country that already has high incidents of HIV (only 1 300 cases), there’s a danger due to the huge emigration that it will become a growing concern. We want to draw the attention to the need of increased prevention care.
Furthermore we have all kinds of activities including the business forum where we’re going to speak about CSR. We also run ballet charity activities with the goodwill ambassador Nino Ananiashvili. Paata Burchuladze, also a goodwill ambassador, is helping us with a public service announcement on HIV which is going to be broadcast on television.
The World food program is organizing an awareness rising of food issues at schools and standing up to speaking out about poverty as the latter’s still at a high level in Georgia.
Since 1993 the UN in Georgia has experienced mixed results. Drawing the government’s attention to poverty programs is the area I’m proud of most. Also we’ve been very active in working on legislation, particularly in the area of reforms.
The UN has been helping the health sector combat diseases like HIV. Last year we worked very intensively with the Georgian government on avian influenza issues. We’re cooperating with the local government in terms of various educational projects.
The UN is helping the displaced people from Abkhazia and South Osettia. Working in those conflict areas is also helping to promote relations between the local communities and is contributing towards a peaceful solution of the problems.
Q. Being a Canadian and British national, you hold a Master of Arts in International Development from the Carleton University School of International Affairs, Ottawa, Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto, which universities would you advise to people determined to become employed at the UN?
A. I don’t think it matters much which university you go to. The UN is such a huge organization with expertise in health, agriculture, science, and childcare. There’s no one single institution majored in preparing staff for UN.
To have a good education is very important. But even more important is having the right work experience and attitude, which is an openness while working with different cultures and in different environments. I have met people in my home country who have never left the country or met people from other countries, they don’t speak foreign languages, and hence would never be successful at the UN. The most important aspect about getting employed at the UN is to have an openness to the world.
Q. You have an impressive professional record with ECHO, EC, IFRC and the Red Cross in different countries, such as Jordan, Turkey and Switzerland. What was your motivation for continuing your career with the UN, in Georgia?
A. The first time I came to Georgia was in 1982 as a tourist and I found it a very beautiful country with very hospitable and warm people that left a good impression on me. When the opportunity came to come here, I was very enthusiastic to see how things have changed since 1982.
Georgia went through a painful transition period. Currently there is a potential for changing things for better and we’re heading in that direction.
Q. In addition to your native English, you speak fluent French, Spanish and Arabic. What’s the level of your Georgian skills? Is it a kind of social responsibility to learn the language of the country you work in?
A. I’m really interested in languages though I speak poor Georgian. Unfortunately the current schedule of my job doesn’t give me time to learn Georgian. The little free time that I have I spend not learning Georgian but listening to Georgian music.
It’s very important to speak the native language of the country you run business in and I encourage people to do it.
Q. What’s the feedback you expect to get since the upcoming CSR business forum?
A. In February we had a meeting where we brought some companies to talk about CSR, why it’s beneficial for them to do it. The purpose of the upcoming forum is to bring together these companies along with some NGO organizations and the government, and try to make a dialogue between the three.
Eventually, the idea is that CSR will be taken over by the business community in Georgia. The UN is pushing to get everything going right way.