Citizenship, accountability and community: the limits of the CSR agenda

Peter Newell

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225 Citations (Scopus)


While the issue of the role of the private sector in development is very much on the agenda of donors and governments, mainstream Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) debates continue to neglect questions with regard to the accountability of companies to the communities in which they invest. Liberal notions of CSR place great emphasis on voluntary, partnership and market based approaches to tackling social and environmental problems and managing conflict. While the rise of voluntary standards and codes of conduct in the North and the growing popularity of various forms of ‘civil regulation’ has improved the responsiveness of corporations to social and environmental issues, there are doubts about their transferability or relevance in many southern settings. This is particularly so when viewed from the perspective of communities pursuing corporate accountability in the absence of donor, NGO or government pressure for company reform. It is in these ‘majority world’ settings that we encounter the limits of the liberal CSR agenda.

This article therefore explores the different tools that poorer communities have developed in order to construct mechanisms of corporate accountability. Recent work in India is drawn upon to ground the analysis, but reference is made to many other cases in different regions of the world and across a variety of sectors. It is suggested that many state-based, community-based and company-based factors determine the likely success of such initiatives. Power disparities and how to contest them emerge as key, however, and their neglect within mainstream CSR approaches undermines their ability to address issues of corporate accountability in situations characterized by sharp inequities in power. The emphasis here is on the process of promoting corporate accountability, and the relations of power that underpin these, rather than the achievement of more narrowly defined indicators of corporate performance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)541-557
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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