STEVE COOGAN, a British comedian, once told a joke about David Beckham, a footballer who is unlikely to win a Nobel prize for physics: “They say, ‘Oh, David Beckham—he’s not very clever.’ Yeah. They don’t say, ‘Stephen Hawking—shit at football.’” Successful corporations are like Mr Beckham. Both excel at one thing: in Mr Beckham’s case, kicking a ball; in the corporations’ case, making profits. They may also be reasonably adept at other things, such as modelling sunglasses or forming task forces to solve environmental problems. But their chief contribution to society comes from their area of specialisation.
Ann Bernstein, the head of a South African think-tank called the Centre for Development and Enterprise, thinks that advocates of corporate social responsibility (CSR) tend to miss this point. In her new book, “The Case for Business in Developing Economies”, she stresses the ways companies benefit society simply by going about their normal business. In a free and competitive market, firms profit by selling goods or services to willing customers. To stay in business, they must offer lower prices or higher quality than their competitors. Those that fail disappear. Those that succeed spread prosperity. Shareholders receive dividends. Employees earn wages. Suppliers win contracts. Ordinary people gain access to luxuries that would have made Cecil Rhodes gasp, such as television, air-conditioning and antibiotics.
These are not new arguments, but Ms Bernstein makes them fresh by writing from an African perspective. Citizens of rich countries often fret about the occasional harm that corporations do, yet take for granted the prosperity they create. People in developing countries do not have that luxury.
I would offer that in the year 2010, even rich economies no longer have that luxury.
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