Ghanaian telecommunications companies incorporate democratic principles in CSR practice

September 12, 2017

Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed, Anli Xiao, Erica Hilton

By Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed, Anli Xiao and Erica Hilton, PhD students at Penn State

The African nation Ghana is gradually working its way toward middle-income status. However its development does not manifest in the largely under-developed northern part of the country, ironically, where the largest number of non-governmental organization (NGOs) in the country are located. It is against this background that examining the corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts of mobile telecommunications companies in the region is imperative to understanding the contributions of corporations to alleviating poverty.

As cultural researchers, we wanted to explore the nuance in companies’ communications of their CSR initiatives, and how their CSR projects directly affect the communities they serve in the Northern Region.

To understand how this internal communication on CSR is dispersed throughout multiple levels, we interviewed employees from the entry-, mid- and management-levels over a two month period. A total of 15 in-depth interviews were conducted in four of the oldest, highest income-generating mobile telecommunications companies currently operating in the Northern Region of Ghana. This study specifically focuses on mobile telecommunication companies because it has become an integral part of Ghanaian society, and it is the industry with one of the highest market circulation rates in Ghana.

We examined the themes that emerged when employees were asked to define what CSR means to their company. The themes were then analyzed and compared to the manifestations of the actual CSR practices of these organizations.

One of our key findings found that telecom companies employ a democratic approach to implementing CSR projects. In all four companies, decisions about what CSR projects to embark on were open to employees, clients and publics through the submission of proposals that go through a screening process for approval. This approach incorporated Western democratic values and traditional communal values of consulting with members of communities before taking major decisions about the community.

As far as internal communication is concerned, as we moved down the corporate ladder knowledge about CSR values and efforts of telecom companies reduced. Naturally, management level employees had more information about the CSR work than entry level employees since the managers were more likely to be an integral part of the decision-making process for CSR projects.

The idea of sustainabile solutions is not including the definition and implementation of CSR projects. The most common definition of CSR presented by employees pointed to companies “giving back” to communities. While this does encompass the idea of CSR, it doesn’t embody the idea of sustainability. Therefore, many CSR projects manifested in the form of donations to hospitals, orphanages, schools, etc., which lead to very few sustainable projects compared to non-sustainable CSR programs. 

Finally, despite the wide developmental, educational, socioeconomic gap between the North and South of Ghana, very few telecom companies’ CSR projects addressed the issue of this gap. Though some employees expressed the need for more CSR projects in the largely poverty-stricken North, little was done to address the developmental gap.

In some cases, the funding quota for CSR was less in the under-developed North (compared to the developed South) because companies felt they did not bring in as much revenue. Therefore, equal funding was not allocated toward CSR.
Corporate social responsibility in many sub-Saharan countries has largely focused on donations and monetary support to social institutions while ignoring sustainability and ultimately long-term impacts on communities. In order for telecommunications companies to positively affect the communities in which they serve, they should re-examine their internal communication on CSR to ensure that employees at all levels have enough knowledge about their CSR values in order to relay them to clients and publics.

Telecommunications companies should also work toward implementing more sustainable projects to address the needs of the communities they serve. Although corporations are profit-driven, we argue that there is the need for these corporations to re-examine the ways in which they implement CSR projects. As researchers, we should work together with telecommunications companies to draw on development theories to include sustainability in CSR efforts so as to positively affect the communities they operate in, which in turn will enable these corporations to project a positive brand image.