CSR and the role of business in Areas of Limited Statehood

By Sameer Azizi.

The global search for new markets has pushed corporations to operate in national settings in the Global South that differ tremendously from Western understanding of business-society relations and CSR. The question is whether the mainstream understanding of CSR is adequate to cover the complexities of business-society issues that companies face in the diverse settings of Global South?

The point of departure in CSR debates is that local and global stakeholders use various means to push large companies to engage in CSR. The companies respond by engaging CSR practices – sometimes in collaboration and partnership with civil society actors and transnational organisations – to both deflect criticism and to set the CSR agenda for the future. Such CSR engagements enable the largest corporations to play a pivotal role in global governance. It is even claimed that they can complement or substitute the provision of a rights and basic level of public goods (e.g. education, health, infrastructure) that would otherwise be expected by the governments.

Such assumptions about stakeholder relations and claims about the role of large corporations in society are not reflecting the realities of many countries in the Global South. In my doctoral research I studied the Afghan mobile telecommunications industry as a particular case of CSR by large global firms operating in least developed setting with fragile state institutions and a massive need for social development. I underline that the Afghan state is limited and unable to provide security or basic public goods (e.g. basic education and health services) in certain geographic areas. These areas are in other words ‘Areas of Limited Statehood’. Studying CSR and the role of business in such settings lead to two points of criticism about the mainstream CSR assumptions and claims.

The role of conventional and unconventional stakeholders

First, in specific geographic areas (e.g. South-eastern parts of Afghanistan), the Afghan state and the Western coalition forces are in a continuous violent conflict with opposing groups over authority to rule. In such extreme cases of areas of limited statehood, there is a need to distinguish between the ‘conventional’ stakeholders (e.g. state actors, civil society organisations and UN agencies) as identified in CSR debates, and the less known and ‘unconventional’ stakeholders consisting of informal actors. Though typically not mentioned in the CSR literature, the latter is important to include as they influence business-society relations in such areas. The unconventional non-state actors are important governance actors in areas of limited statehood and can influence the business-society relations by operating as a de-facto state.

The study shows that the large corporations in Afghan mobile telecommunications industry operate in both state-controlled urban areas and in the rural parts of Afghanistan, where the non-conventional actors also operate. On the one hand, the corporations address CSR explicitly with/without conventional actors (e.g. UN offices, donor agencies, NGOs and state institutions) by drawing from CSR best practices and award-winning solutions on various community development projects and innovative solutions based on mobile technology. On the other hand, the corporations face unconventional actors in rural areas that use unorthodox methods to seek economic and political gains. As an example, various criminal groups utilise the ‘anarchical’ situation to seek ransom money by abducting corporate personnel working in these remote areas. Other more politically motivated groups threaten to vandalise corporate assets (e.g. tele-towers or corporate buildings) unless the mobile network is shut down in specific locations. Such lack of mobile network service would enable the insurgency groups to carry out activities against the central state without getting reported by the local populations and/or tracked through mobile phone technologies. The affected corporations either engage indirectly with the non-conventional actors by providing alternative community development projects or more directly by sporadic ransom and/or systematic informal tax in order to reduce threats and avoid the violent sanctions. These examples provide a more nuanced picture of stakeholders and pressures than yet covered in the mainstream debates on CSR.

The political role of business in Areas of Limited Statehood

The second point of critique of the CSR debates concerns the claims that corporations gain a political role in Global South as public good providers and enablers for democratic governance. In contrast, my findings suggest that the corporations do support – perhaps unwillingly – both the conventional actors that ideally strive for a democratic society and the unconventional actors that are opposing such ideals in Afghanistan. In other words, it is obvious that corporations have a political role in society, but the drivers and implications of this political role is somewhat different from the debates on political CSR.

The examples indicate that access to the rural market motivates the corporations to operate in the midst of a violent and ideological conflict. Hence, instrumental motivations are not contradicting or hampering for-profit corporations to engage in a political role as assumed in recent CSR debates. On the contrary, the for-profit logic serves as a driver for such role in society. In other words, CSR in such settings revitalises Friedman’s famous statement: “…there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” (Friedman 1970). Therefore, there is an urgent need to revise Western-biased assumptions about stakeholders and claims about the role of business in Global South when debating CSR in relation to Areas of Limited Statehood.


Sameer, PhD, is an External Lecturer at the CBS Department of Management, Society and Communication. His main research interests are in the fields of CSR and business-society relations in Areas of Limited Statehood, ICT4Development and critical management studies.

Pic by Todd Huffman

The “sandwich trick”: How ethically questionable practices get normalized

By Dennis Schoeneborn & Fabian Homberg.

At some resort hotels in Las Vegas, it is an established practice that guests at check-in hand-over to the receptionist a ‘$20 sandwich” (i.e. a banknote slipped between credit card and ID) in order to attain a room upgrade. Such benefits can include luxurious suites, top floor rooms with views, etc. In a recent study, Dennis Schoeneborn (Copenhagen Business School) and Fabian Homberg (Southampton Business School) have examined this ethically questionable practice that can be seen either as a “tip” or rather as a “bribe”, since it is paid before any services are received and with a clear expectation of reciprocity. Their study has been accepted for publication and is forthcoming at the Journal of Business Ethics.

In their article, the two researchers present findings from analyzing users self-reports on the website Frontdesktip.com that includes numerous stories of “succeeding” or “failing” when “playing the sandwich trick”. To give one example – one guest named “J.”, staying at the Bally’s Hotel, reports: The receptionist “asked for my driver’s license and credit card. I slid the $20 sandwich over, and before releasing the sandwich I asked ‘Are there any complimentary upgrades available?’ He immediately knew what I was talking about. He nodded his head, placed my sandwich under the counter on the keyboard and began typing away. Within a few moments, […] [w]e were upgraded to a King JR Suite in the North Tower. Well worth the $20.”

By studying self-reports of playing the “$20 sandwich trick”, the researchers found that this ethically questionable practice “worked” especially when hotel guests engaged in informal interactions that allowed to avoid the social stigma of bribery, for instance, by making small talk with the receptionist or claiming to be celebrating a “special occasion” (e.g., a birthday or anniversary). Based on these findings, the study makes an important contribution to existing understandings of how typified social interactions can stabilize and “normalize” petty forms of corruption or other ethically questionable practices.

You can find the full article here: Schoeneborn, D., & Homberg, F. (forthcoming). Goffman’s Return to Las Vegas: Studying Corruption as Social Interaction. Journal of Business Ethics.


Dennis Schoeneborn is a Professor (MSO) of Organization, Communication, and CSR at Copenhagen Business School (Denmark).  Fabian Homberg is an Associate Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at Southampton Business School (UK).

Pic by Max Pixel

Creativity: Africa’s new gold?

By Ana Alacovska and Thilde Langevang.

Cocoa, precious minerals and crude oil ceased to be Africa’s only natural resources. Creativity is ‘the oil of the 21st century’ (Ross, 2008). Creativity and culture are nowadays intensely hailed by global development institutions as ‘a wonderstuff’ (Ross, 2008)—the magical passkey to Africa’s sustainable development—poised to propel inclusive growth, cultural diversity and job creation especially for young people, peripheral communities and women.  Under the auspices of the UN agencies such as UNESCO, UNDP and UNCTAD, the bold and buoyant discourses of cultural and creative industries are enthusiastically embraced throughout the continent: creative industries will help Africa ‘leapfrog’ into emerging high-growth global economies (UN Report on the Creative Economy, 2008, 2013); African creative industries will ‘unleash’ growth potential (UNIDO, 2013); creative industries are ‘Africa’s sleeping giant’.

Such upbeat narratives of creative industries provides the much-desired antidote to Afro-pessimism. In conjunction with the optimistic stories of ‘Africa on the rise’, creative industries promise to make over the negative image of Africa marked by poverty, war and diseases, and replace it with entrepreneurial drive, coolness, hipness and success. ‘Agenda 2063’, the African Union’s strategic framework for the continent’s development optimistically bets on the creative industries to engender future Pan-African ‘self-awareness, well-being and prosperity’. The creative policy craze trickles in global media as well. Young and hip African creative entrepreneurs – from ballet dancers, fashion designers and poets, to photographers, architects and game developers – prominently grace media stories across platforms.

But what is the current state of African creative industries and can they really deliver on their promise? Can creative industries lead to sustainable development? Can African countries straightforwardly import and implement a creative industries model developed elsewhere?

The marriage between culture and development has been for long a political ‘dream ticket’ (Pratt, 2014). The initial (UNESCO-driven, 1982) cultural policies envisaged development to be delivered via cultural resources (for example, national identity to be promoted through folk songs or health-related knowledge to be disseminated via community theater). In contrast, the current creative industries policies aspire to directly drive the development processes through job creation, environmental sustainability, and social cohesion on par with the other industries, despite the fact that the creative industries defy the traditional models of ‘industry’ in terms of modes of value creation, labour organization, supply chain management or IP regulation. Yet such high-flying promises may fall short of empirical support. While Africa may boom with creative talent the continent so far has not been able to profit much from it. Currently Africa’s share of the global trade in creative products remains marginal and in terms of employment creation we know little about how many people the creative industries actually employ, who they employ and under what conditions. Apart from the eulogizing creative industries discourses sparsely do we understand the actual lived dynamics of the allegedly newly-fangled creative, inclusive or sustainable jobs, in Africa’s creative industries.

To question the sustainable development potential of creative industries becomes ever more relevant if we bear in mind the findings about equality and diversity in those industries in the Global North. Current scholarship casts doubts on creative industries’ progressive, sustainable and inclusive potential. Such studies vehemently criticize the image of creative industries as cool, creative, egalitarian and meritocratic (Gill, 2002). Creative work is precarious, involving insecure, unpaid and irregular employment. Study after study demonstrates that women are severely underrepresented, victimized and discriminated against in the creative industries in the Global North (see the contributions to the latest special issue of Organization entitled Diversifying the Creative: Creative Work, Creative Industries, Creative Identities (Finkel et al., 2017) as well as contributions to the special issue on Gender and Creative Labour by Conor et al., 2015). Class, race and ethnic inequalities are rampant in the music and publishing industries in the UK (O’Brien et al., 2016). People with disabilities are even further systematically excluded and disadvantaged in the film and television industries (Randle and Hardy, 2017).

Given such a state of affairs, the answer to whether creative industries can lead to sustainable development in Africa can be neither rushed nor divested from future rigorous and systematic research-based understanding of the cultural, social, economic, historical and technological specificities of African creative industries, in all their elusiveness, peculiarities, definitional hurdles and ambivalences.


Ana Alacovska is Assistant Professor and Thilde Langevang  is Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at CBS. Alacovska researches the creative/cultural industries, creative work and cultural production, while Langevang’s research areas are in business and development studies with a particular focus on youth, entrepreneurship and micro- and small enterprises in Africa.

Photo by Thilde Langevang.

The Society of Spectacle from the Inside Out

By Catarina Pessanha Gomes.

On Wednesday May, 3rd, like millions of people, I distractively watched the last and by far the most unpleasant Presidential Debate of the French elections. The two opponents,  Emmanuel Macron, who would become the future President the following week, and the candidate of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, debated heartily but vaguely on several subjects, ranging from security to the future of France in the European Union.

The debate was more of a succession of childish insults in what looked like a theatrical play staging two ill-tempered children supervised by bored but resigned adults (the journalists‘ presence was barely noticeable), rather than an articulated, argumentative discussion confronting two political programs. Filled with sarcastic remarks, dirty games, personal attacks, most of it was a bland confrontation between pre-made, overheard anti-system formulas and the empty, normalized neoliberal remarks.

While the debate was broadcasted in the national television, another spectacle was simultaneously occurring on social media, where millions of internet users were sharing hilarious comments and memes from the debate. Faced with this abysm of representations of something that was an inherent representation in itself, I could only invoke Guy Debord’s major work, The society of spectacle, published in 1967.

According to Debord, the spectacle is the imposition of an external representation between “me and myself”, “me and others” and “me and my world, distorting any direct relationship with lived experiences, separating the individual from its own life, which becomes a passive consumer, a direct and concrete fabrication of alienation.

I am not sure Ryan Broderick, who tweeted the screen capture that is the cover picture to this post, is familiar with Debord’s work. But it is nevertheless a perfect illustration of its criticism of modern politics and their fake spectacular struggles, where forms of power struggles officially contradict each other while forming a real unity, a necessary representation of exposed rivalry necessary to the development of a uniform and homogenous system of representation.

In his comments of 1988, Debord highlights the culmination of the society of the spectacle, the integrated spectacular which represents the culmination of the excesses, the moment where spectacle and reality ceased to oppose, where the spectacle is mixed to all reality. As one internet user on twitter sarcastically said, the internet conversation around the debate reached such a pic of mockery and absurdity that people seem to be talking about the last reality show rather than a debate that could decide the country’s future. When any day of Trump’s presidency looks like the Apprentice with more unexpected plot twists and casting changes, when TV becomes reality, I could not help but wonder if social media add another level of spectacle representing the representation itself or if these remarks constitute the last act of parrhesia in our society, of speaking the honest truth, the whole truth (Foucault, 2001, p.348) which is that all of this is just a huge joke…on us.


Catarina is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society & Communication at Copenhagen Business School. Her PhD project investigates partnerships between social entrepreneurs and public institutions, with a particular focus on how social entrepreneurship can be institutionalized.

Pic by Ryan Broderick, Twitter

What if unethical behavior is just matter out of place?

By Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic.

It’s always puzzled me why it is that we might share words and concepts but that the meaning we fill into these concepts is very different. Kinda like a hotdog. Danish hot dog makers enjoy to fill it with important hotdog defining ingredients such as remoulade, mustard and pickles, whereas rumor has it that Swedish hot dog makers put a shrimp-mayo substance (the horror) on their hot dogs, and American ones don’t even put ketchup (seriously, just a bread and a sausage?).

Anyways, the point is that Danes, Swedes and Americans all call it a hotdog, although they don’t agree on what it actually consists of, what is right (onions and pickles of course) and what is wrong (shrimp-mayo, obviously). Banal observation, perhaps, but don’t worry – there is a point (also, you have to bear with me, as I’m a brand new PhD student and not yet as clever as the other bloggers).

Schooled as an anthropologist, I recently started my PhD study on how to ensure ethical standards within a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. As a point of departure, and trying to map out how corporations deal with this challenge, I started consulting the literature on business ethics in cross-cultural contexts.

As I read along, I realized that scholars (and companies) actually seem rather sensitive to cultural differences, and that local responsiveness to cultural norms and practices is considered beneficial and even necessary in many aspects of business operations. However, at the same time, within the field of business ethics, what may be otherwise recognized as cultural differences to be respected and responded to, seems here to somehow transform into unethical behavior not to be tolerated.

Take for example the reciprocal systems of dinner invitations, gift giving and thorough social interaction that comprise an inherent part of establishing relationships in parts of South East Asia. This can be interpreted as a cultural practice of creating good business relations. However, in a business ethics context, most (Western) ethical standards do not allow for e.g. gifts or expensive dinners to enter business relations. In these contexts, they do not keep their cultural label as gifts form the context in which they originate. Rather, they get a new cultural label from the context www.buy-trusted-tablets.com of Western ethics as something resembling corruption.

So – how can gifts (which for most of us has positive connotations) suddenly become corruption (which for most of us has negative connotations) when entering a business relation governed by Western principles for right or wrong? The answer might lie with an anthropological classic on purity and danger.
In her famous work on dirt, anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that notions of dirt express symbolic systems within a culture. Efforts to get rid of dirt, she writes, are not governed by an anxiety to escape disease. Rather, we are reordering our environment, making it conform to an idea that we share within our culture of what is dirty and what is not.

In my early years as an anthropology student, one lecturer explained Douglas’ theory like food on the shirt. In my opinion, an amazingly pedagogical way of explaining a basic anthropological theory which I will attempt to repeat:

It’s really rather simple. It’s about food and dirt. Perhaps the aforementioned hotdog should reenter the scene here. The Danish one with all the sauces, of course. While this hotdog is in your hand, it’s food. It’s a mouth watering hotdog just waiting to be eaten. But when you drop some of it (and believe me, you will) onto your shirt, it is no longer food. It’s dirt. Thus, the entire nature of a thing or a concept can change completely according to the context in which it is located and our culturally embedded understandings of that context’s rights and wrongs (hotdog in hand = good, hotdog on shirt = bad).

Douglas introduces the concept of matter out of place, which is a conceptualization of the ways in which we interpret the things we are exposed to and the understanding of where they belong. The hotdog belongs in your hand and not on your shirt. Therefore, when the matter of the hotdog is on your shirt, it transforms its qualities from being a hotdog to being dirt. It’s matter out of place.

Tongue in the anthropological cheek, I find it interesting to ask the business ethics community: What if the same goes for business ethics? What if all the things we consider unethical are merely not conforming to an idea we share within our culture of what is right and what is wrong? What I the logic governing the notion of say, e.g. bribery is similar to the notion of food and dirt: gifts in a local cultural system = good, gifts in a business relation = bad?

And if we try to conceptualize business ethics in this way – what does that do to our understanding of unethical practice? Would that be a move towards moral relativism? Or merely an attempt open up for a more nuanced approach to business ethics where we can also explore the ethical actions that companies take which do not conform to our (Western) understandings of rights and wrongs? Would that dilute the ethical principles of corporations? Or would it break a Western ethical hegemony? Is unethical behavior really just matter out of place? And lastly, is such an approach even manageable for corporations on a practical level?

I don’t know. But I will surely think about it some more.


Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic is PhD student at the Department for Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. She is working on how to ensure ethical standards within a multinational pharmaceutical corporation.
Pic by Pixabay

Are you choosing what you really want?

By Jan Michael Bauer.

The value of individual freedom is rarely disputed within the Western society. However, more freedom is usually accompanied with making more choices, which might not be beneficial to everyone. For instance, the act of choosing itself can be burdensome, particularly when choices are complex and we face a large number of options. More importantly, can we trust that our own decisions are a true reflection of what we really want, if we accept the reality of our cognitive limitations and a manipulative environment?

Our economic system and democracy are both based on the principle that people know what is best for them and their decisions speak through their purchases in stores and their votes at the ballot box. This principle is also at the core of the neo-classical economic model that dominated the field over most of the 20th century. The underlying assumption is that people’s actions within the market place are the result of a well-considered reflection about the best use of limited resources to maximize their own well-being.

Even though this assumption sounds intuitive, it should be no news to most people that we not always act in our own best interest. Too familiar is the feeling of regret about drinking a glass too much on the night before, eating that second piece of chocolate cake or procrastinating instead of getting started with something unpleasant but important. This reality about human decision-making has entered the field of economics over the last decades, acknowledging that people are neither all-knowing nor perfect calculators and that their decisions are influenced by their feelings, worries and believes that not always accurately reflect objective realities.

Predictably irrational

It is now well-established in economics that people sometimes behave in a seemingly irrational way and that these deviations from the rational choice are systematic and therefore predictable. For instance, people are more likely to pay a bill on time if they fear a late fee, rather than the prospect of an early payer discount of similar monetary value. A simple change in the wording of two mathematically similar choices does influence our decisions. Such biases can often be explained by the so-called dual process theory and attributed to people’s limited cognitive resources resulting in an inability of carefully evaluating each of our decisions in daily life.

Most people are unaware that their choices are subject to such systematic irrationalities, but given the sound scientific evidence, we can be quite certain that people are often myopic, overconfident, or loss avers – just to name a few from a much longer list. Even when confronted with these scientific insights, it is not easy to accept that we have such biases which deem us irrational. This is however important as these biases are not only in the way of our long-term well-being, but make us susceptible to manipulation. If the way a choice is presented to us affects our decision, the person deciding the way of presentation (sometimes named choice architect) has the ability to influence our choice.

Phishing for Phools

If we accept that people are susceptible to influence, tend to make bad decisions under stress, and can be fooled, we might not be surprised that some people aim to exploit those weaknesses to make profits. A notion highlighted by “Phishing for Phools”, a recent book by Nobel Prize-winning Economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. They argue that the free market, despite all its contribution to today’s prosperity, is a place for profit oriented individuals to fish for fools and where those prevail who capitalize best on exploiting human weaknesses. Food choices are an excellent example where companies try to seduce us with their tempting products and benefit from our failure to stick to a healthier diet. Fishing in the political landscape might not be much different from the market place. With the additional help of technology, marketers and campaign managers can make increasingly use of behavioural insights to promote their product or candidate.

What can be done?

Therefore, it is essential that people obtain a deeper understanding of their own psychological weaknesses and receive guidance how and when we are most likely to be manipulable. Even though it is impossible to be constantly aware of all the hooks surrounding us, education about our cognitive biases might help avoiding at least some of them in the market place (e.g. by reading Dan Ariely’s work).

Additionally, about 180 governments worldwide, the European Union and many international organizations enrich regulation with behaviour insights by acknowledging the multiple caveats of human decision-making. Behaviorally informed policy aims to create a choice architecture where people naturally gravitate towards decisions most likely in their own long-term interest. Working as a counterforce against commercial influence, regulation can also help consumers to make informed decisions by mandating the disclosure of important information presented in a simple and meaningful way.

Designing such policies, however, requires a detailed understanding of the relevant processes involved into human decision-making. As part of the EU research project Nudge-it, we aim to increase the knowledge specifically about food choice, which might translate into novel policy tools and help tackling the obesity epidemic.


Jan is assistant professor at the CBS Department of Management, Society and Communication. His main research interests are in the fields of health economics and consumer behaviour. As part of the Nudge-it Project, he currently focuses on decision-making and fostering healthier food choices.

Pic by Windell Oskay, Flickr

Business integrity, ideas and developments in the ASEAN way

By Luisa Murphy.

As a former employee of the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division, I worked on corruption cases involving companies accused of both collusion and bribery. However, when these cases crossed borders, enforcement of US laws became particularly challenging. It also raised questions about the relevance of US Federal laws in regions of the globe such as Asia where different ‘national business systems’ (Witt & Redding, 2014) prevail. Today, through my PhD studies on the institutionalization of CSR, I find myself considering some of these same questions informed from the vantage point of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Corruption in ASEAN

As with other areas, the ASEAN region has not been immune to the effects of corruption involving national, regional and transnational actors. One need look no further than the recent UK Rolls-Royce bribery scandal (which was settled for £671m) and moreover, implicated Thai Airways for taking bribes. The front page scandal involving the discovery of $1 billion dollars in Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank accounts which was allegedly taken from the state investment fund 1MDB has also directed attention to the region.

Thus, it is no secret then that the ASEAN region, in common with others around the globe, suffers from corruption issues and that this presents a major challenge to its socio-economic development. For instance, in 2015, Transparency International reported that ‘rampant corruption across the region threatens to derail plans for economic integration’ (Transparency International, 2015), while 7 out of 10 countries in ASEAN ranked 40 or under (100 is a perfect score) in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. As a result, international, regional and national organizations have rallied together to confront these issues. And although the region still may be experimenting with different approaches, there appear to be a few distinctive ASEAN strategies which are taking hold and may very well, provide informative lessons for the future. A recent conference in Singapore organized by the ASEAN CSR network (a regional hub and leader on CSR issues which connects international, regional and national networks), brought a few takeaways to the forefront.

Triggering business integrity

Elements of hard law may be an important tool in inducing adherence to international soft-law frameworks such as the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC)’s 10th principle on Anti-Corruption, Goal 16.5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the ISO37001 anti-bribery management system among others. For instance, one company executive who participated in the Singapore conference captured the applicability of hard law enforcement approaches in relation to other CSR issues e.g. health and safety standards, by noting that workers in one country in the region didn’t take compliance seriously until they were fired for not wearing safety hats. This resulted in ‘triggering’ compliance with health and safety standards thereafter. In the case of Singapore, prohibitions such as littering in public places, jaywalking or chewing gum on the street have been particularly effective in engendering behaviors which need not be enforced in the long-run. Thus, an approach which utilizes elements of hard law in conjunction with binding international frameworks such as United Nations Convention against Corruption and the UK Bribery Act as well as regional frameworks (e.g. ASEAN 2020) may be an effective means to trigger adherence to soft law frameworks in the future.

Culture as an opportunity and not an excuse   

Corruption is not necessarily an ASEAN region cultural problem per se and certainly many positive aspects of the regional culture can be harnessed to fight corruption. While gift giving in the form of bribes may have previously been (or in some cases currently) is a ‘cultural norm’, it can also be argued that many companies operate with a spirit of business integrity. Although, it would be naive to say that the ethos of business integrity is inherent in every company, behavior and culture are different, and issues of corruption may be related to governance issues or other factors rather than ‘culture´ itself. Notwithstanding this, cultural norms such as the fear of ‘losing face’ have reportedly been successfully employed in efforts to pressure CEOs into implementing anti-corruption initiatives. The Thai Collective Action Coalition (CAC) is one such example of a private-sector initiative which has been particularly successful in combating corruption in Thailand, perhaps because it reportedly operates with a mindset which utilizes international frameworks such as Transparency International’s UK (TI-UK) Adequate Procedures Checklist while tapping into ASEAN cultural norms of e.g. ‘losing face’ to ensure that Thai CEOs join the initiative. Therefore, energies in the future might focus on norms which are counter to corruption rather than daunting conceptualizations of assumed ‘cultures’ of corruption.

Youth and SMEs as engines of business integrity

Finally, approaches to combating corruption are increasingly focusing on youth and SMEs and using them as indicators for progress on the issue. In the ASEAN context, this has meant mobilizing and providing resources which can contribute to business integrity among the youth population and also small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs). While this may seem like a ‘no brainer,’ ASEAN countries and international organizations are still clarifying their approaches. For instance, whether there will be enough ‘trickle-down’ from top-down approaches which deliver e.g. training via multinational corporations (MNCs) or whether a bottom-up approach is necessary is still being debated. Moreover, while the youth of many ASEAN countries have good intentions, they are often derailed due to economic or familial concerns. For instance, a 2014 Transparency International report indicated that while honesty is more important than wealth to 94% of the youth in Vietnam, 41% are “willing to lie for the sake of family income or loyalty to family.’ (Transparency International, 2014). Despite these figures, we should remain optimistic given the integration of youth into CSR activities and the overall focus on reaching SMEs in the region (topics for another blog).

In conclusion, only time will tell how ASEAN triggers business integrity, uses culture as an opportunity and mobilizes youth and SMEs in the battle against corruption. I, for one, see promise in these developments and ideas which might just become part of the ASEAN way.


Luisa Murphy is PhD Fellow at Copenhagen Business School and supported by the VELUX Endowed Chair in Corporate Sustainability. Her research examines the governance of corporate social responsibility. She brings a human rights and business background from the University of Oxford and legal experience from the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice.

Pic by  Transparency International Indonesia

How is Ayn Rand still a thing? From ridicule to serious concern

By Steen Vallentin.

A recent article in The Washington Post informs us that Donald Trump is affectionate about the works of Ayn Rand (1905-1982), often referred to as the ‘high priestess of selfishness’. He shares this affection with several of his members of cabinet. These include Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, Andy Puzder, Secretary of Labor, and Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA. The speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has also been an outspoken supporter of Rand, although he has recently distanced himself from her philosophy, citing its atheism as a fundamental concern (Rand famously viewed altruism as an evil form of self-sacrifice, and thus spoke against Christian values of giving and regard for others).

Trump has said that he identifies with Howard Roark, the main protagonist of Rand’s The Fountainhead, while Tillerson has listed Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus, as his favorite book. The Fountainhead was made into a Hollywood movie in 1949, starring Gary Cooper as Roark, and this can of course lead one to speculate whether the president actually read the book or ‘just saw the movie’. This brand of speculation would, however, be typical of a tendency to ridicule rather than take Rand’s philosophy, its continued popularity and the influence it continues to have on the rich and the powerful seriously.

To name but a few examples of the ridicule: In 2009, the animated TV show The Simpsons had Lisa Simpson comment to her mother about The Fountainhead: “isn’t that the bible of right-wing losers?” In 2012, president Obama commented that Rand’s work is something that is picked up by teenagers that are “feeling mistunderstood”, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in 2014 dedicated a dismissive installment of “How is this still a thing?” to Rand’s work.

In popular treatments of her philosophy and the cult of personality that surrounded her, notions of ‘selfishness’, ‘greed’ and ‘objectivism’ are thrown around, but rarely with much argumentative depth. In scholarly circles, her work is often rejected as overly politicized ‘bad philosophy’, full of logical fallacies (and false distinctions), failing to constitute a coherent and closed system of thought (in spite of such pretense), and thus not deserving of more serious engagement. The literary form she uses in her major philosophical works also does not count in her favor among scholars. It can easily be dismissed as philosophical pulp fiction.

What I want to question here, however, is whether or how Rand’s work is deserving of more serious critical attention and treatment by those who are opposed to it. The idea is not to offer support or claim neutrality, but to lay bare the arguments presented in order to better understand and challenge their continued allure. In other words, Rand’s thinking continues to be an ideological force to be reckoned with, and we need to understand why and how it influences people, not least those in power.

Importantly, following Boltanski & Chiapello, the term ‘ideology’ should not be construed in the reductionist sense often suggested by Marxist uses, e.g., as a moralizing discourse intended to conceal material interests and constantly contradicted by practice, but rather as shared beliefs that are bound up with actions and hence anchored in reality. In other words, ideology must be considered as a practical concern with real effects (however loosely coupled with ideological precepts), not just as a mask veiling reality, a mode of deception or a sham.

Admittedly, Rand’s thinking is a hostile world to enter for non-believers. There are a number of reasons for this (apart from the endurance required to get through the 1100+ dogma-soaked pages of Atlas Shrugged). Objectivism is a closed philosophy, related to her mind’s work and reflecting her ideal world, a world that is often far removed from most people’s experience of the modern world. In spite of strong objectivist claims regarding Man’s mind and its relation to reality, her loyal followers often tend to ignore the obvious and to misrepresent reality when defending objectivist dogma. Objectivism is often associated with extreme/far-right political views, self-consciously flying in the face of political correctness and common morality and peddling the same sort of dystopian and polarizing view of the deterioration of American society that Trump campaigned on. However, the real ‘truth’ of Rand’s philosophy is to be found in her work, not in how various minions choose to carry her torch.

In Atlas Shrugged (1957), she creates a world in which industrialists, i.e., the prime movers, the makers, the traders, constitute a morally superior class of people. Opposed to these are the second handers, the takers, the looters, moochers, rotters of society. The industrialists represent everything that is good and capitalism everything that is proper in this world, but successful business people and proper market principles are persecuted by forces of envy and mediocrity operating under the flag of social responsibility. In Rand’s world, social responsibility is nothing but a battle cry for politically correct, collectivist-egalitarian and ultimately totalitarian schemes that are meant to keep great business people down by means of government interference and regulation. It is the way of the loser, who cannot make it in a man’s game of real market competition and who cannot cope with the innovative brilliance of the chosen few. Social responsibility and social welfare and progress are promoted by morally corrupt, hateful and obviously inferior people, whose actions are bereft of proper reason and any meaningful relation to reality.

In her depiction of an America that is falling apart due to lack of reason and totalitarianism, (and which in many ways more resembles her native Russia), Rand provides scathing critiques of the corrupted – and corrupting – forces of politics, government bureaucracy, science and media, the tyranny of public opinion and the lack of reason among the common people. Opposed to all this rot stands capitalism. To Rand, and her followers, capitalism pure and unadulterated is the solution to all imaginable ills of society. She offers a philosophy according to which selfishness and greed are virtues and nobody should ever feel ashamed about being successful.

We do not have to accept the claims of Rand’s philosophy or to sympathize with its underlying ideology to acknowledge that her dystopian world view has some resonance in regard to emla what we are living through right now. Besides, there is the matter of the continued influence of her thinking on the rich and the powerful. Atlas Shrugged portrays business people (the right kind) as innocent and by and large powerless victims of persecution and scapegoating perpetrated by a list of shameful characters ranging from government bureaucrats to spouses and family members. For one of the more extreme expressions of this message we can turn to a 1962 lecture where she asserted that: “In Soviet Russia, the scapegoat was the bourgeoisie; in Nazi Germany it was the Jewish people; in America, it is the businessman” (quoted in Weiss, p. 53).

It is interesting how this perplexing narrative of persecution apparently continues to inspire extremely rich and successful people (the 1%) – in spite of all their success and all their well-documented power, and the fact that the societal view of business people and business as an institution has changed dramatically since Rand wrote her book.

In sum, Rand’s thinking is probably more a part of the problem than the solution to many of the crises we are facing, but it nevertheless call for more serious engagement – even by those radically opposed to her extreme view of the virtues of capitalism and everything that stands in its way. As the saying goes: keep your enemies closer …


Steen Vallentin is Director of the CBS Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (cbsCSR) and Associate Professor in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School.

Pic of Rand by David Seaton, edited by BOS.