As economies are growing, so is the sophistication of community engagement programmes in Asia
The rise of corporate community engagement programmes across Asia has gone hand in hand with an increase in the popularity of philanthropy on the continent. As companies have grown and prospered in the Asian region over the past three decades, so a culture of corporate charitable giving has emerged and is now morphing into more targeted and thought-out community engagement programmes.
The best community engagement initiatives in the region first arose in those countries quickest to emerge economically – notably, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. In the 1990s, similar programmes appeared in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and more latterly India. Corporate community engagement initiatives have been slower to take off in more rigid and state-directed economies, particularly China, but have become more prevalent as political regulations have loosened and globalisation has spread.
The form and style of community engagement programmes across Asia has differed depending on local regulations and cultural traditions. South and south-east Asia have seen a burgeoning charity and non-governmental organisation (NGO) environment. This process has been slower to emerge in nations such as China and Vietnam due to legal constraints.
Programmes that partner with NGOs are now common in much of Asia, though more private philanthropy, or philanthropy programmes linked to government-sanctioned NGOs and organisations – the so-called government-organised NGOs, or GONGOs – are more common. GONGOs, a form of NGO invariably found in undemocratic states, remain ultimately controlled by the state and lack true independence.
In the case of GONGOs in China, there have been criticisms of their elevation in terms of funding and support above independent NGOs, as well as accusations that some GONGO programmes may be aimed more at implementing central government policies than with actually being genuinely philanthropic. Therefore, it is worth separating the two sectors and looking at the different patterns of development. For instance, in China making a financial donation or providing in-kind donations – ranging from products to the construction of schools or healthcare/community centres – is common, while in other parts of Asia more formal partnering projects with NGOs or communities, as well as encouraging volunteerism, are more the norm.
South and south-east Asia
Hong Kong is perhaps the best example of the growing culture of community engagement programmes. In a recent study of such initiatives in the territory, the Asia Foundation notes that private and corporate philanthropy was built “on a solid foundation of history, practice and generosity”. It also says: “From [Hong Kong’s] earliest colonial days, voluntary self-help organisations had emerged among diverse Chinese immigrant populations to cater to the health, welfare and educational needs of their communities.”
This is similar to the process seen in south-east Asian countries with sizeable minorities, such as Malaysia. Very often, and this is also the case in India, community engagement starts in a local ethnic or religious group level and develops into a wide sectoral programme regionally and then nationally – around healthcare, rights or education, for instance.
Poverty alleviation remains a major space for community engagement programmes in south Asia, where communities are disempowered, and government support and funding are often weak. In India, for example, the UK hotels, catering and brewing conglomerate Whitbread has funded a water project in 30 slums around the suburb of Jajmau in Kanpur, in partnership with WaterAid. The programme has created a number of self-help groups to build and repair water sources, trained mechanics to sustain and manage water and sanitation facilities, and constructed child-friendly toilets.
Poverty alleviation programmes are still popular even in relatively wealthy Asian nations, perhaps due to recent memories of impoverishment. In now generally well-heeled Singapore, for example, the Four Seasons Hotel Group has partnered with NGO Food from the Heart to donate unsold baked goods to welfare organisations and needy families.
Across south-east Asia, the demographic dominance of youth is shaping many programmes. Targeting young citizens is akin to targeting both the majority of the population and arguably its most receptive element. In Cambodia, oil giant Chevron has worked with the voluntary youth community group SSEAYP International Cambodia (SIC) to help poor students with books, stationery, clothing and food. It also sponsored a day-long seminar to help recent high school graduates prepare for their careers. The event, organised by Cambodian NGO Help Our Homeland, was the first of its kind in Cambodia.
While Chinese companies have been experimenting with corporate social responsibility programmes since the late 1990s, it was not really until the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that community engagement really started to take off. The outpouring of grief and support for the victims of the earthquake saw record levels of charitable giving by both individuals and companies. However, the response was uncoordinated, so resources and donations did not always target the most needy. What became clear to those looking to develop a culture of community engagement in China was that more preparation in advance of, rather than simply in reaction to, events and natural disasters was required. It was also apparent that guidelines and regulations needed to be tightened up and better enforced to prevent accusations of misdirected donations and engagement activities, as well as cases of outright fraud and corruption. In short, the rise of a culture of community engagement was just one part of the answer; there needed to be a significant rise in awareness of organisational governance issues.
China now has a far more advanced framework to support corporate community engagement with grater space for NGOs – including the traditional GONGOs – and charitable foundations, though still within a tighter regulatory and watchdog regime compared with most other Asian nations. For many Chinese firms, community engagement is yet to move beyond charitable giving. This has not always been universally popular with people. The high-profile philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, a recycling entrepreneur, has achieved at least as much criticism on the Chinese internet as praise for his publicity-hungry charitable largesse. Chen emerged as a philanthropist with a host of intended community engagement programmes during the 2008 earthquake, but many of his donation activities have been perceived as “publicity stunts” in the media.
Western companies operating in China have brought expertise gained overseas in corporate community engagement to bear. For instance, Prologis, a distribution centre and logistics company expanding fast across China, has opted to target the issue of road safety for its major corporate community engagement programme in the country. Uniquely positioned to connect with its target community, Prologis has organised a series of seminars for truck drivers to improve driving skills and road safety awareness, including through safe driving training. Starting in Shanghai, the programme has rolled out nationwide across other major cities, involving both drivers and local Traffic Police Administration officials.
Chinese companies positioned more globally and operating in cutting-edge areas of the economy appear to have put more effort into developing their corporate community engagement programmes. A good example is Tencent, a leading telecommunications and internet services provider. The company has developed a range of initiatives that first began in the early 2000s with traditional programmes for China, such as school and healthcare centre construction in poorer rural areas, but now encompass, through the Tencent Charity Foundation, tree planting and safe web surfing training. Both of these more recent initiatives target “hot button” issues in China – the environment and the responsible use of the internet. Tencent has developed the New Countryside Action programme that is more explicitly concerned with environmental degradation in China, as well as maintained more traditional (and, arguably, more government-friendly) community engagement programmes, such as a Rural Teacher Training in alliance with the official Communist Youth League.
Foreign companies have also found environmental and rural development programmes beneficial to their image and more popular with local administrations. For instance, Marriott is funding an initiative in Sichuan Province to develop a remote village’s honey industry. The hotel group is also buying the certified-organic honey to use in most of its Chinese hotels and is selling it in its shops, with proceeds going to the programme.
Corporate community engagement programmes across Asia will continue to develop in line with social and governmental trends. Asia is of course not a monolith, but the sum of its very different, culturally unique societies. Programmes in a majority Muslim country such as Indonesia tend to focus on more religious objectives, while in China – where development is a top government priority – traditional programmes targeting disaster relief and rural poverty remain common. Demographics are an increasingly popular subject with professionals organising community engagement programmes, but differences remain. In south-east Asia, these initiatives are increasingly targeting youth communities as they form most of the population. However, in China, where a rapidly aging demographic means substantially more older people in need of help, senior citizen-oriented programmes are becoming more popular with both organisations and the government.
What is true everywhere, though, is that, even in slower developing community engagement nations such as China, the days of simply handing out money or supplies has passed. Instead, more thoughtful, targeted, long-running and capacity-building programmes are the order of the day.
May 2015, Singapore
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