Is CSI really helping women?

Judy Nwokedi says we need to make sexual harassment and gender equality fashionable causes again. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Judy Nwokedi says we need to make sexual harassment and gender equality fashionable causes again. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

A common mistake made in corporate social investment (CSI) programmes is assuming that corporate solutions will magically address a problem because they are backed by big money and big ideas dreamed up in boardrooms.

“CSI has achieved a lot, but the approach must not be top-down,” says Phutumile Dumisa, a programme and project manager in the education development space. “The interventions tend to be prescriptive instead of diagnostic, and not enough research is done to direct the funding.”

This may be the reason why CSI interventions have failed to make a noticeable, widespread impact on the lives of women, who remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.

Louise Gardiner, founder of sustainability consultancy First Principles, points to the value of involving women in solutions to wide-reaching problems such as access to tampons and sanitary pads.

“This is not something that occurs to a male in designing a CSI project. In India, for example, there are amazing things happening around this issue that are changing mind-sets.

“In South Africa it impacts on education and the opportunity for girls to attend school. If we get women involved in the engineering and technical responses, we would get a completely different approach to how a man might tackle things,” she says.

Gardiner believes many CSI interventions are well meaning but are sadly misdirected. She recounts the advice she was given by a facilitator in a rural community, who suggested companies should engage in a two-year dialogue before implementing projects.

“I was advised that the companies first have to build trust before the community engages back, and that they should be willing to let their expectations change. 

“As South Africans we are scared of what that means, we’re so tied to the outcomes of these projects. We’re advanced in many ways, but if we are willing to engage in dialogue and let that change our viewpoint, it is a big step in the right direction.”

Dumisa says there is recognition that CSI projects need to empower women, but often this is more a box-ticking exercise than a concerted effort directed at specific challenges.

“When we looked at the challenges we have in the country, we felt that empowering women by targeting teachers would have the greatest impact,” she says. “This is because they are often the custodians of children through most of the week, and if we are able to empower them, in a way we are impacting on society.”

An added obstacle to projects making widespread impact, she says, is the lack of long-term financial commitment to interventions and projects.

“Funding is like an event,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a one-year intervention, it should be for at least five years as this gives the NGO or project room to come up with a long-term strategy.

“Even in a three-year project, although you can hire field workers they tend to be committed for one-and-a-half years, after which they start look[ing] for another job,” Dumisa says.

This challenge of attracting committed funding, however, is not the most pressing.  Relevance remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to CSI projects making a tangible impact on the lives of women across the country.

Dumisa says that while corporate involvement in projects can be wide-ranging — from direct funding through to infrastructure improvement and development — they should also consider involving members of the community directly in these activities.

“We don’t always need money, we need role models, so if people in the community around a school are exposed to CSI programmes they can get involved and take over some of those activities themselves. We don’t want a begging country. We want a country that sees possibility wherever people go.”

Dumisa and Gardiner are in agreement that women’s involvement is crucial to CSI interventions having the desired outcome, irrespective of the form of the support provided. The benefits of direct involvement extend beyond the ability to provide input, and exposes people to the processes while allowing them to develop their skills.

Judy Nwokedi, chairperson of the Investing in the Future & Drivers of Change awards, says sexual harassment remains a stumbling block for women in spite of transformation in gender relations.

“It doesn’t matter who you speak to, we all deal with it,” she says.

Twenty years ago there was vibrant community activism and dialogue around sexual harassment, but in recent years gender transformation appears to have regressed.

“Perhaps we need to make sexual harassment and gender equality a ‘fashionable’ cause once more,” she suggests.