Transforming lives on four continents

Business sense

Posted by Mission Catalyst at 07:39 on 25th May 2010

BMS contacts in Bangladesh answer our questions about how founding a consultancy company three years ago has transformed businesses in Dhaka and beyond

What is your aim and ethos?
To enable businesses in Bangladesh to be socially responsible, sustainable and profitable. We work to reduce the damage to the environment caused by pollution from industrial processes – leather tanning, dying, bleaching – and seek to improve employment conditions inside the factories and to move from ‘minimum wages’ to ‘living wages’. We also promote the concept of fair trade in the garment factories.

How do you go about achieving this?
Our three-year experience has made it clear to us that the work must be carried from inside the Chambers of Commerce and inside the Garment and Knitwear Manufacturers Associations.

We write articles for their monthly journals, we regularly meet with their senior officials and we provide participative training courses and consultancy on a national basis and to individual factories.

We have also joined a local Rotary Club to give ourselves a close social relationship with senior members of the majority community.

What has been the response from local business people to your model?

We have built up an extensive network of contacts, send a monthly circulation of the e-briefing on social responsibility, write our monthly column in The Executive Times, and have membership of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Committees of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and the Foreign Investors Chambers of Commerce.

As a result, we have been able to move forward the thinking about CSR in Bangladesh from ‘corporate philanthropy’ and ‘social compliance’ to ‘each organisation has a duty to society’.

How is what you do distinctive from other local businesses?
We will not pay bribes; we will not bid for contracts which would involve us paying bribes. We truthfully report findings from factory visits and evaluations.

We strive to provide high quality services on time, every time. We carry out activities which are not designed to make profits but are intended to develop the understanding of CSR in Bangladesh.

In our recent round of recruitment, three of the four successful candidates were women and this is distinctive because, in Bangladesh, women not only face a ‘glass ceiling’ in promotion but a ‘glass wall’ in actually getting employment.

How to you promote corporate social responsibility?
We have developed an extensive database covering most trade sectors across Bangladesh and from these e-mail contacts we send out 5,000 e-newsletters each month. Sometimes these e-newsletters are picked up by journalists and re-printed in national newsletters.

Through our membership of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Foreign Investors Chamber of Commerce, and our contract work for donor agencies, we have had access to cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats, which we hope will lead to the development of government policy on CSR.

We also write material about CSR for websites in Bangladesh and accept speaking engagements, for example, at the Dhaka University MBA Course, for the International Labour Organisation and for the Government of Bangladesh Planning Ministry.

We also provide training courses for delegates nationally, for Trade Associations and Chambers of Commerce on a city-by-city basis (such as in Chittagong and Dhaka) and on a factory-by-factory basis.

How easy or difficult is CSR in Bangladesh?
The level of corruption in this country makes it very difficult to do business honestly and to get contracts without paying bribes. Sometimes contracts are advertised after they have been granted to a friend or a cousin or someone who has paid cash in advance.

Chambers of Commerce and Trade Associations are politicised and have vested interests. Relationships are all-important and so sometimes it takes several months to form a relationship with an elected officer who is then moved following an election or with a bureaucrat who is then moved in a Government ‘shuffle’.

Factory proprietors are driven by the desire to make profits and to enhance their personal wealth and so we have to be able to demonstrate the business benefits of socially responsible actions; otherwise recommendations for improvement to factory conditions, wage rates or environmental protection will be ignored.

Tell us about one standout, success story.
One contract with an international donor agency enabled us to significantly improve the safety and working environment of the workers in a large milling complex.

Inspection, manager training and provision of warning posters and safety advice materials improved occupational health and safety for about 8,000 workers.

Following the ending of the contract, the factory general manager continued to ask for advice and guidance on occupational health and safety and CSR from our company.

The amount of time we spent building relationships with factory managers opened up friendship opportunities and the opportunity for an in-depth conversation with a senior administration manager about faith and the good news.

What does the future hold for your organisation?
The global economic downturn caused international donor agencies and businesses in Bangladesh to look to reduce their expenditure on consultancy and so our company also experienced a financial downturn a few months back.

We have several international donor agencies now opening up conversations with us about CSR contract work. Our high profile because of the e-briefings and journal articles is leading to more companies contacting us.

A reality, however, is that there is plenty of interest but relatively few companies are willing to part with their money at this point because the garment sector, which comprises 85 per cent of Bangladeshi’s export market, is still experiencing the effects of the global economic downturn.

We have many doors open to us in the majority business community and many friendships formed with senior members of the majority community. There are many opportunities to share the good news and this approach offers a bright future for contacts and influence, even though at the present time it is a struggle to be financially viable.

The edited version of this article appeared in issue 1/10 of Mission Catalyst



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