Corporations and the fight against hunger: why CSR won’t do
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
By Steve Collins and Paul Murphy
In addition to the many millions still suffering from acute malnutrition, over one-third of all children in developing countries globally experience chronic malnutrition – often referred to as “hidden hunger” (pdf). Aside from the inherent suffering, the devastating longer-term consequences (both for the child and ultimately for their country) are often not understood.
Progress has been made in the fight against malnutrition. The development of highly fortified nutritious pastes, ready-to-use therapeutic foods, together with community-based management has revolutionised our ability to treat severe malnutrition. These products are eaten directly from the pack, do not require mixing with water, are stable without refrigeration and are highly convenient and palatable. Combined with the innovative approach of empowering mothers by delivering nutritional care to people in their communities rather than in hospitals, these foods have resulted in dramatic improvements in treatment and prevention, with death rates cut fivefold. But the problem is too big to leave to the UN, NGOs and the public sector to resolve.
Engaging Private Sector
There is an opportunity for the private sector to lead in tackling this problem but traditional models that approach the treatment and prevention of malnutrition from the perspective of corporate social responsibility or charity, are not only failing to address the problem, they are also missing major opportunities for revenue growth. Malnutrition can now be treated at real scale. However, in order to extend this approach to include prevention, we need more effective engagement with the corporate sector. The debate shouldn’t be about if, but rather about how, the private sector should engage.
We set up our company, Valid Nutrition, as a social enterprise with the specific mission of manufacturing these life saving foods exclusively in developing countries and making them more available, appealing and affordable to those who need them most. Fundamental to our vision and approach is the concept of regarding malnourished people as customers – and not just as passive beneficiaries of goodwill.
In our opinion, the reason engagement has moved so slowly is that it has been based too often on a flawed CSR viewpoint. Despite all the hyperbole, CSR tends to be peripheral in most organisations and is not woven into the fabric of the business. It’s not always transparent and there maybe strings attached. Sometimes it’s driven by a need to buy profile and even worse, CSR has been used as a type of moral counterbalance to practices that have had direct negative impacts on the poor. To make a lasting difference, we believe the prevention of malnutrition must be integrated into the core business of major food companies. Realistically, that requires shareholders to receive a tangible return. At some point, companies must be able to generate profit out of their engagement with the so-called “base of the pyramid” (the economically poorest 1 billion people on our planet). Controversial perhaps, but also rooted in realism.
- Health Care