Local Lessons for getting CSR Right

The tradition of making donations is intrinsic to Myanmar society, both for secular and religious purposes. With businesses wanting to be part of this tradition, the proliferation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in the country naturally complements a deeply rooted culture of giving.

For businesses engaged in CSR initiatives, the easy option is to simply find a good cause to donate to. Certainly, there is no shortage of deserving cases in Myanmar where a timely gift, whether in cash or in kind, can meet an immediate need. However, CSR programmes that produce the longest-term benefit go beyond the immediate appeal of just giving donations.

Sembcorp, the global integrated energy, marine and urban development company, has been active in the communities near their power plant at Myingyan in the Mandalay Region. A close study on their CSR journey uncovers some useful and valuable insights on how they have endeavoured to make their CSR programme more enriching and inclusive.

Defining the purpose
A company that sees CSR as an obligation rather than an opportunity will struggle to maximise the potential from their CSR activities. It is useful to start by getting to the core of the company’s purpose. For Sembcorp, their purpose is to do good and play their part in creating a sustainable future. It was very clear that their purpose drives how they want to be involved in their communities.

Engage, engage, engage
When Sembcorp arrived in Myingyan to commence work on constructing its gas-fired power station, it came with decades of international experience in designing CSR projects for the localities in which it operates. However, because they recognised that every local context is different, they therefore engaged with key stakeholders within the community to find out their needs, rather than imposing on them.

Through 39 stakeholder engagement meetings attended by more than 3670 villagers, Sembcorp discovered that the top priorities for the villages were a supply of clean drinking water, better firefighting resources, and a more conducive learning environment for their children. After identifying these imperatives, the company then began to work out how best they could be addressed for the long-term.

Making sure that the dialogue is comprehensive and inclusive, rather than being dominated by those whose priorities may not be widely shared was key. Through a process of grassroots democracy, Sembcorp held regular ‘village hall-style’ sessions with the villagers and their leaders. As Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin, an inhabitant of Thein village, puts it, “We have had many stakeholder engagement meetings so far and I have attended all of them. I find the meetings very useful.”

Listening to a wide variety of voices
Sembcorp has a community engagement team that visits the nearby villages regularly to get a wide variety of feedback and to hear requests and concerns from children and village heads alike. This well-received outreach is supplemented by a suggestions box, which allows villagers who do not necessarily want to be outspoken during a meeting to express themselves in their own way and in their own time.

“Sembcorp is always following up with our concerns, asking and noting down our needs. They have helped us a lot” says Maung Zaw Min Shine, a 6th grade student from Tha Pyay Thar village. Before the engagement process began, the local school buildings were rotting and falling apart. Being in close proximity to the Ayeyarwady River meant that classrooms were regularly flooded during the rainy season. “When it rained, I couldn’t hear anything that the teacher was saying,” Maung recounts. “The water came down from the roof’s holes. We had to run out to find safety.”

The situation was so dire that parents in the village considered keeping their children at home instead. As Tha Pyay Thar’s village head, U Win Shwe, admits, “We didn’t want to send our kids to school. We requested that we needed a proper school for our children when Sembcorp came to our village back in 2015 for a stakeholder meeting.”

New and safer school buildings were constructed, along with accompanying facilities. “I would say that education support has made a huge impact to our village,” concludes U Win Shwe. A beaming Maung Zaw Min Shine agrees, “I like everything about my school now. I can learn in a proper building which cools us down in the summer and protects us from the rain and flood in the rainy season.”

Such improvements have made a difference to both the long-term opportunities of young people, and the viability and vibrancy of the communities themselves. It is worth noting that such improvements could have only come about through the informed decision making that stakeholder engagements in the villages facilitated. These engagements also informed other aspects of Sembcorp’s CSR engagement there, including the construction of underground water tanks for fire-fighting and fourteen water treatment plants supplying drinking water to more than 19,000 people who live near the Myingyan power plant.

While Sembcorp’s CSR initiatives are well-informed by villagers’ feedback, it is not all just about fulfilling needs. Given the Myanmar people’s love for football, Sembcorp has also recently built two futsal courts in Myingyan and Taung Thar townships. These state-of-the-art futsal courts come with flood lights to allow for night-time play and have built-in compact, durable artificial grass turfs. They are also almost twice in size compared to the existing futsal courts allowing for full-scale games to be played. Tournaments are organised between Sembcorp employees and members of the local communities to foster bonding.

Sembcorp will be operating the Myingyan power plant for 22 years before handing it over to the Myanmar government as a national asset. While the plant has become a major source of employment in the area, no less a transformation is being achieved locally. With an accompanying CSR programme that builds and enhances the strength of the neighbouring communities, they have the reserves to shape their own future in the decades ahead with confidence. What more could good CSR hope to achieve?

This article was first published in Democracy Today on November 16, 2019.

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