'Good for business'
Is greater corporate social responsibility on the horizon? Lina Mahmoud attends Egypt's Global Compact launch
On Monday, the Federation of Egyptian Industries hosted the formal launch of the Global Compact (GC) -- the UN's initiative on corporate social responsibility -- in Egypt. Two hundred delegates representing the private sector, as well as both academic and civil society, attended the launch, which included the reading of the 2004 Cairo Declaration, and an opening session addressed by Manpower and Immigration Minister Ahmed El-Amawi, on behalf of Prime Minister Atef Ebeid.
A message from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was also read out. "The compact is based on the idea that business can join hands with other sectors to find solutions to the poverty and social injustice that still blight our world." Iqbal Riza of the UN Secretary-General's Executive Office delivered Annan's message to the launch. "The compact is a voluntary initiative. It relies on the vision and commitment of leaders in the private sector to make its principles an integral part of their day-to-day operations. Its mechanisms are not regulation, sanction or confrontation -- but rather a dialogue, learning and projects. Instead of interpreting existing norms and regulatory frameworks, the Global Compact focuses on finding practical solutions."
Egypt is the first Arab country to formally adopt the GC, which Annan first proposed during the 1999 Davos World Economic Forum. Egypt is now one of 77 countries that have embraced the initiative. More than 35 Egyptian companies -- including ABS, Allied Soft, Compu ME, IT Valley, Nile Construction, Sekem group, Al-Hoda Company and Sonac -- have also joined the 1,200 companies worldwide that are part of the GC.
According to Antonio Vigilante, UN resident coordinator in Egypt, "the UN's GC is a framework that allows firms to voluntarily reaffirm their corporate social responsibility and adherence to ethical standards, which is much needed for any country wishing to stay on the human development track."
El-Amawi noted that, "the GC is a humane invitation to all working sectors and civil society" to voluntarily take on an "appropriate" role in social development.
Following the launch, two GC discussion sessions were held. Among the speakers were UN representatives and business leaders including Onsi Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Construction Industries, and Ibrahim Abul-Eish, president of Sekem group.
According to Mervat El-Tallawi, executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the "GC is an important initiative to reduce the widespread tension between businesses and labourers." El-Tellawi cautioned, however, that results would not appear overnight.
Within the framework of the GC, companies are asked to respect nine human rights, labour and environmental principles, which include upholding the freedom of association, recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the effective abolition of child labour, and ensuring that they are not complicit in human right abuses.
The UN's Riza told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the GC moves beyond the issues of labourers- employees. It brings companies of the private sector together with other social sectors on a voluntary basis. It tries to globalise human rights values and bring populations first out of extreme poverty and then out of widespread poverty."
The GC is a network; at its core are the GC office and five UN agencies: the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; the United Nations Environment Programme; the International Labour Organisation; the United Nations Development Programme; and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation.
The launch also addressed an oft-asked question -- what businesses can expect to gain from the GC. According to Adel Azer, a professor and Social Research Centre policy consultant, "a company's participation in the GC would enhance work ethics and the fulfilment of civil responsibility, contributing to the company's reputation and respect at national and international levels. In short," Azer suggested, "it is good for business."