Sunday, May 3, 2009


The recognition that social responsibility need not just be the outcome of simple welfare considerations but rather can be a key instrument in the process of development, which can work in association with economic policy as part of a broader strategy, is an important step towards working out mechanisms for its greater spread and effectiveness. However in order to ground social responsibility more firmly with a larger development strategy and work out the links between it and straightforward social policies, it is necessary to be aware of the political economy contexts within which both sets of policy are developed and evolve.

An attempt is therefore been made to analyze the scope of social responsibility in the recent Indian development experience, ask how it can supplement development policy, and probe how social responsibility can be transformed into a more effective instrument for equitable and sustainable development.

In essence, social responsibility-or rather, the complex web of related policies, schemes and institutions that are concerned with the social conditions of economic activity-reflects the broad social contract between capital and labour. In developing economies this refers to social contract especially for the management of the development project. The latter in turn has been defined for much of the past half century, as the project of increasing material welfare for most of the citizenry through economic development using the agency of the nation state. For many developing countries including India, this project remains partially or largely unfulfilled-although this state of incompletion still has not prevented it form being nearly abandoned in several instances.

It is increasingly evident that social responsibility has a significance that goes beyond the welfare considerations about basic equity and minimal living standards, which form part of the social and economic rights of citizens. In fact it can play a major role in the capitalist development project, at several levels. At the most basic level, social responsibility of different types are crucial to the state’s capacity to “manage” modernization, and along with it the huge economic and social shocks that are necessarily generated. Thus for example, social policies of affirmative action in parts of Southeast Asia (as in Malaysia) have been essential to maintaining ethnic harmony over periods when existing income inequalities and social imbalances across groups within the aggregate population would be otherwise accentuated by economic growth patterns.

Similarly when overenthusiastic and possibly insensitive developmental projects overturn existing local communities or destroy material cultures without satisfactory replacement, social responsibility driven action can become the basic instrument for rehabilitation and renewed social integration. The massive human shifts (geographic, economic, social) that most development projects entail are potentially sources of much conflict or at least keeping it within levels that do not destabilize society or derail the development project itself.

In so far as the growth process also generates or entails cyclical volatility in growth or incomes or has a tendency towards periodic crises of whatever sort, social responsibility can also serve as a cushion for dampening the worst social effects of crisis, which in turn can contribute to the feasibility and sustainability of the entire process.

It is now widely recognized that the universal provision of good education and basic health services is an important condition for raising aggregate labour productivity levels and in this context the potential scope for social responsibility driven civil society actions cannot be undermined at all. In addition to being an integral part of the economic growth process, social responsibility which affects policy decision also evolves with this process. In other words both the economic policy and the social responsibility patterns, even when they appear to be unchanging in a statutory sense, are actually quite dynamic and intertwined with political economy considerations which constantly evolve.

It thus emerges that while increased social responsibility is both a desirable and a necessary concomitant of the development process; its existence and form in each social context cannot be taken for granted, but rather depends on the political economy configurations which influence both its extent and its evolution. This is clearly evident from the Indian experience which shows both the clear need for effective translation of social responsibility and the relative inadequacy of what has been provided by the state in terms of the basic objective of the nationalist developmental project.

I am thus arguing the relative absence of social responsibility, institutional or otherwise in India over the post-independence period is one important reason why the development project itself has remained incomplete and unsatisfactory in terms of fulfilling the basic requirements of the majority of citizens. There can indeed be greater scope for such a discussion but I have been tempted towards brevity faced with time constraints and for the need of greater clarity in communication.

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