Prominent among the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) community in the Middle East are the people who have been involved in various projects in the region over the last couple of years and most of these people, including myself were here to ride the wave when it rose. Very rarely do we see someone who was spearheading the CSR message long before it became a part of the business lexicon. Dr. Fatih Mehmet GUL of CSR Middle East is one of those people. Dr. GUL is the Country Manager for Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives and Bab Rizq Jameel in Turkey and Founding Director of CSR Middle East. Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with this dynamic yet oddly modest person. A medical doctor by profession, Dr. Gul is clearly one of the pioneers of the concept in the region and is respected name for not just his web portal but his continued efforts to make a palpable change in the mindset of local businesses about ethic and responsibility. Below is a summary of our talk:
Why and when did you start CSR Middle East?
Back in 2004 when I started working with ALJ Group and got involved in community service programs, I started to research for best practices in the region but found nothing. There was no website or a portal that gave information or highlighted CSR and Sustainability practices from the region. This was an eye opener and I decided to take the initiative and launch something which will serve the purpose. What started as a simple website that tracked news pieces about CSR in the region has now developed into a full-fledged forum with 850 active members and almost 6000 unique visitors a month.
How does CSR landscape differ from when you started?
When we started back in 2005, it was very rare to find solid CSR initiatives from within the region. In a good week, we would find 1-2 pieces and those were mostly community based initiatives. Over the past few years, the interest has literally exploded in regional media & business community with a lot of foreign companies working in the field, companies hiring CSR specialists and setting up CSR departments. The focus is also getting more strategic and more diversified. We still see a lot of community initiatives but companies have started experimenting with other avenues and the focus on the other aspects of CSR has heightened.
Which countries in the region disappoint you with respect to CSR and which are the ones you are pleasantly surprised with?
I am very pleasantly surprised with the growth in Oman, over the past couple of years; I have seen some very strategic and meaningful initiatives come out from there. They are taking it very seriously and the businesses are showing an increasing commitment to CSR. About the disappointment part, I won’t say disappointed but I am a little thwarted at the slow pace of the spread of CSR in Qatar. It is a great, progressive, promising country and it is taking huge strides in terms of industrial and economic growth. Yet when it comes to CSR and sustainability, there has been a lot of focus on purely PR activities masked as CSR. Qatar foundation, Qatargas and Vodafone Qatar are the three key players in the CSR arena but others also need to follow their example in taking more pre-emptive measures and moving away from the purely promotional elements.
What do you think is the biggest impetus for companies in the region to do CSR?
Sadly, the business case of CSR in the region is not as widely appreciated as one would hope. The major motivation remains image enhancement and in some cases getting a social license to operate. Only a very few companies have managed to see it as a strategic business imperative and utilize it as such. I think this is the tipping point for CSR in the region, when companies will realize that CSR is a long-term investment not just a cost and till that time, we all should continue to play our role in spreading the word.
What has been the most exciting thing about the CSR transition in the region?
The exciting thing is that it is moving very fast and that companies are setting higher budgets and are taking it seriously, it has moved from a one off initiative backed by a lone Press release to a full scope programs with KPIs and strategic support.
What are your future plans for the CSR Middle East?
We have some very exciting changes coming up. We already have the trend-wise results of the initiatives and programs across the region but we are planning to start a monthly trend watch article series that will highlight the major trends and changes along with our recommendations on how companies can make it better for both community and business benefit.
What will be your advice to aspiring CSR practitioners in the region?
My only piece of advice that I often see being ignored is to try to understand the cultural CSR context of the region and tailor your offerings and your programs to that. You cannot bring the model which worked in the west and expect it to work in the Middle East with the same results. The market is ready and eager but still in its infancy; give them something they can chew on.