28 January 2006

What's the right thing to do?

Should companies sacrifice business profits for the good of the world? After all, business is about making profits. And, after all, businesses have a responsibility to their shareholders. Faced with the dilemma of doing good for the world against the pressure of handing over profits to shareholders, what’s a corporate organisation to do? Surely, corporate organisations are responsible enough to do the right thing!

Earlier this week, an anonymous visitor (whoever you are, thank you for visiting my blog) left a comment on my blog in response to my mention of ‘scenario planning’ methods used by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group in formulating corporate business strategies. While I celebrated Shell for their foresight and their planning tools, my anonymous visitor pointed out Shell’s corporate strategies in Nigeria, going back fifteen years or so – strategies which had (and, perhaps, continues to do so even now) caused severe environmental and economic damage to Nigeria.

Apparently, Shell’s oil drilling operations in Nigeria had done considerable environmental damage to Ogoniland (home of the Ogoni tribe) in the Niger Delta. The damage included oil spills, natural gas flaring, pipeline construction through farmland, destruction of fish and aquatic life, poisoning of land and water…leading to devastating environmental, health and economic consequences. When the Ogoni protested, Shell had taken a hard-line, conniving with the several interim governments in power, arresting, imprisoning and even executing many Ogonis. It had become a human rights issue.

Sadly, this is not just a problem from the nineties. The Ogonis have endured their troubles for close to fifty years, ever since Shell began drilling oil in Ogoniland in 1958. How legal and ethical are/were the ways of Shell? Why has the Nigerian government allowed this to happen? Why hasn’t the world responded to the troubles of the Ogoni?

These are important questions. And, they set me off wandering on another track: How concerned should a corporate organisation be about the impact its business has on people, the environment and the world at large? Shouldn’t this question be considered and answered much before the organisation sets up its business? And, if the answer to this question offers an outcome detrimental to the interests of the people, the environment and the world at large, shouldn’t the organisation re-work its business strategy?

There is a lot of talk about corporate social responsibility (CSR) these days, but doesn’t CSR really start when the business idea is conceived, rather than later, after the profits are made? If the business idea isn’t any good to the world, shouldn’t it be destroyed before it destroys people and the environment? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

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