CSR AND TELECOM: CALLING FOR ACTION

By Marc Abizeid, Responsible Business – Beirut

Telecommunication companies across the globe continue to rake in enormous profits as demand for their services continues to increase despite recent economic downturns, making the industry one of the most resilient, lucrative and fastest growing in the world. With their financial might, telecom firms have tremendous potential to reinvest and create positive impacts in the communities and societies around the world that are covered by their vast networks.

Each company follows a different approach when it comes to offering such solutions, and every case needs to be examined in context. A large part of what they can offer depends on the size, scale and capability of the company to invest in the areas that define corporate social responsibility (CSR). And another key factor depends on the regions in which these companies operate, as every country faces different social challenges that require a particular plan of action. But before those elements can even be considered, the company must first define and adopt a philosophy and culture that recognizes its responsibilities to the public.

One pillar of CSR some telecom companies have embraced has been the pursuit of environmentally sound initiatives. Green telecom involves cutting down on hazardous byproducts created in the manufacturing of products and systems. For example, using renewable energy sources like solar and wind to power the telecom industry’s infrastructure reduces green house gases and other toxic fumes released into the atmosphere when burning fossil fuels.

Environmentally conscious telecom companies can also use eco-friendly materials to replace hazardous components like lead and mercury in the production of mobile devices and other gadgets. There are also new innovations in electronic recycling to prevent toxic substances from finding their way into our water streams.

High Ambitions

Denmark’s TDC, which provides around 9 million people with mobile phone and internet services across Scandinavia, has set some impressive benchmarks when it comes to the pillars of CSR. The company publishes an extensive report each year thoroughly detailing its major initiatives and accomplishments in five categories: Digital Denmark, Customer Safety, Environment, Employee Well-being and Social Partnerships.

ICT businesses can save millions of tonnes of CO2 by greening their operations but also gigatonnes of CO2 through smart solutions.

DaxLovegrove, Head of Business & Industry, WWF-UK

The reports demonstrate a clear, well conceived and dedicated strategy on the part of the company to address certain issues through an ambitious set of projects. Among them include making use of its tech savvy teams to equip schools and hospitals with the latest technologies to streamline learning and introduce creative health care solutions known as “telemedicine.” On the environmental front, the company has set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 – a mission the company appears to take very seriously. Each year it reduces its electricity and water consumption, use of paper, and transportation fuel. TDC even maintains its own fleet of electric cars.

The list goes on, but what’s most striking about these initiatives is that they are being led by a relatively small company based in a country of five million people and operating in a region with the lowest poverty in the world. Yet despite the Danish government’s array of successful programs to address social needs, TDC still chooses to play a part in the community.

Falling Short

Contrast TDC’s ambitious programs with those of Vodafone – the United Kingdom-based telecommunications giant. Its 2012 sustainability report identifies six areas of focus: agriculture, health, low carbon societies, education, financial services and smart working. The problem with the company’s initiatives in these six areas is that whatever benefits they claim these services provide appear to be reserved for its subscribers alone, rather than for the benefit of communities at large.

If we just look at what the company offers in the area of agriculture, for example, Vodaphone says its primary mission is to increase food productivity to meet a growing global demand while land and water resources are becoming more sparse. Its master plan to achieve that goal involves getting farmers in India, Africa and the Middle East to use their mobile phone services to keep up with weather forecasts and crop prices, and to use Vodaphone’s money transfer service to send and receive funds (for which they would still have to pay transaction fees). Farmers can also use their phones to get tips on farming techniques as is being done in Egypt, Vodaphone says. But it is unrealistic to imagine that such farmers, who have been sowing their lands for generations, would take tips on irrigation and harvesting from a text message. The company’s other five focus areas for sustainability do not bode well either.

Similarly, South Africa’s MTN Group could be doing more, especially considering the needs of the people living in volatile and poverty-stricken regions that form its customer base, namely Uganda, Zambia, Sudan, Syria and several others. The company is the single largest telecom provider in Africa, and also services millions of subscribers in the Middle East. But what distinguishes MTN with most other companies is that it spells out in very frank terms its own shortcomings, and identifies areas in which it needs to improve. For example, MTN’s 2012 CSR report includes an interview with its CEO in which he responds to allegations of the company’s misdeeds, admits failures to protect subscribers’ privacy from hackers and spies, and says that more needs to be done in the arena of energy conservation and e-waste.

Telecom in the Middle East

When it comes to telecommunication companies based in the Gulf, it appears UAE’s Du leads all of its regional competitors in the realm of CSR, at least judging by its latest report on the issue which focuses on four pillars: heritage and culture, education, “stars of the future,” and developing our society.

What distinguishes Du from most of the other telecommunication companies is its direct engagement with local communities through outreach programs and special activities.

The company emphasizes the importance of the region’s cultural heritage by partnering with local art centers to organize events for children. It supports programs to promote the Arabic language and literacy through a number of campaigns. The company provides funds and technical support to local schools and universities to equip them with broadband internet and networking programs. And of course, they have led many fund-raising campaigns to contribute to relief efforts in Gaza, Somalia, Pakistan and other areas where tragedy strikes.

In a recent initiative under the umbrella of its sustainability efforts, Du has announced a new partnership with Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence (DCCE) to help further reduce its carbon footprint. This partnership enhances the initiatives already undertaken by Du, which include the installation of energy and fuel-saving technologies, participation in green efforts such as Earth Hour, and more. Through the latest project, Dubai Carbon will calculate Du’s carbon emission baseline based on GHG Protocol methodology, upon which sustainability indicators will be identified and a carbon-reducing strategy will be developed.

By installing hybrid power and smart energy management solutions at 137 of its base transceiver station (BTS) sites, Du has reduced fossil fuel consumption by 1 million litres, resulting in reducing its CO2 emissions by 60%, equating to 2,500 tonnes.  By 2014 Du will increase the sites to 250 across the UAE with an anticipated saving of 6.8 million litres of diesel, and consequent reduction of carbon emissions by 17,000 tonnes.

Making Progress

Another UAE-based company which appears to be making some strides in CSR is Etisalat, which operates in 15 countries across Africa and the Middle East. In its 2012 CSR report, the company highlights its role in the so-called “Mobile Baby Program” as one of its top achievements. The project, which Etisalat says has won several awards, is a mobile health initiative that seeks to support pregnant women in rural regions of Africa in partnership with other telecom operators in the region. The company has also undertaken some achievements in the environmental realm with the deployment of solar energy stations at 50 sites across the UAE, according to its report. But the company has also made some mighty claims that are impossible to verify, namely it was able to reduce energy use by 70% and emissions by 80% with the installation of fiber optics.

It would also be fair to recognize the contributions of Saudi Telecom (STC) to community projects. The company focuses on promoting health, society, education and sports through various programs and activities. But the efforts of Qatar’s state-run telecommunications provider Ooredoo (formerly known as Qtel) are severely lacking, judging by the information provided on the CSR section of its web page which merely consists of a few short paragraphs boasting minor initiatives. With the environment in mind, for example, Ooredoo says its big achievement is that it has introduced an e-billing system to reduce paper use, and that each year on Earth Day it turns off the lights and shuts down some electric equipment at its headquarters!

Lebanon’s Front

For Alfa, one of Lebanon’s two mobile phone operators, CSR embodies a wider concept for the role of private companies beyond being just profitable in their field of business, to being active social entities that strive to play an effective role in the society where they operate.

The company’s CEO Marwan Hayek states that “CSR is deeply rooted in our corporate culture.” In an interview by Responsible Business, Hayek pointed to the company’s Alfa 4-Life campaign launched in 2006 which targets children with physical and mental disabilities. As part of the campaign, Alfa formed partnerships with local organizations that help children. “In that context, we support a number of NGOs and work with them to raise awareness on social issues and the needs of disadvantaged people. We mobilize governmental institutions to support their causes. Alfa 4-Life’s main focus are children with communication needs, whom we seek to support using ‘communication therapy,’ with the aim of highlighting how this type of therapy can change lives of disadvantaged children and help them achieve their full potential,” he said.

 

SourceResponsible Business Magazine

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All, 2013

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