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Utopian solutions versus real corporate social responsibility

By Father Philip DeVous
web posted December 19, 2005

Every morally responsible company must reflect carefully on how its core business impacts the communities where it operates, and how it can ensure practices that are ethically and economically sound. This means understanding, assessing and acting upon employee well-being, legal and political realities, environmental impacts, cultural considerations, and religious and moral imperatives. One company making just such a serious effort is The Doe Run Company of St. Louis, Missouri and its subsidiary, Doe Run Peru.

For months, the company has endured criticism from certain journalists and certain sectors of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. So earlier this year Doe Run asked me to help the company better understand the moral, philosophical and theological principles and traditions that should guide socially responsible corporations.

I spent an extremely busy week in Lima and the Andes Mountain town of La Oroya, touring company facilities, visiting homes and neighboring villages, meeting workers and local people, and sharing my views on Christian teaching. These discussions focused particularly on the nature and dignity of work and labor, the rights and responsibilities of corporations, Christian moral precepts about environmental issues, issues related to faith and social justice, and the numerous projects the company has carried out to improve life in these communities.

Doe Run gave me full access to all areas of its facilities, and enabled me to see where people lived, went to school, and participated in life at its lead and silver smelting operation and in the community. I was encouraged to ask questions of any employees, community leaders and local people we encountered, to learn about environmental progress, nutrition, safety and sanitation programs, health clinics, educational initiatives, vocational training programs, road improvements, agricultural projects, and numerous modernized buildings and facilities.

Throughout this process, Doe Run was open and straightforward about the issues, liabilities and problems it faced in meeting business demands, addressing concerns, and assisting people involved in or affected by its operations. It became clear to me that the community – young and old alike – know the Doe Run people on sight, truly like them, feel free to discuss issues and ideas with them, take pride in their city and the strides it is making, and both appreciate and assist with the company's extensive projects.

Having seen all this firsthand, I could not help but wonder which city and company the critics are talking about when they level their complaints. What I heard and saw was completely different from what I had read in various news stories or was told during two meetings with some of those critics.

Without question, Doe Run Peru is operating on the basis of sound principles of economic and environmental development. Its many social projects amply illustrate the attention it devotes to problems associated with the pervasive poverty that has long plagued this region.

In my view, the deep and personal involvement of Doe Run in the life of the community, and the high level of support it enjoys there, is evidence of the company’s respect for the dignity of its workers and other stakeholders. It is also a living expression of Doe Run's conscious effort to be faithful to one of the core principles of Christian social teaching – subsidiarity: the idea that economic, political and social problems are best understood and solved by the organizations and people closest to and most affected by them.

Doe Run has taken up the challenge of evaluating its operations and practices, using the same moral, theological and religious traditions its detractors use when criticizing the company. What is little known outside the theological world, however, is that many of these critics are deeply imbued with and guided by "liberation theology." Despite its many nuances, this philosophy is really nothing more that Marxism painted over with a thin veneer of Christian moralizing about class struggle, the supposed illegitimacy of private enterprise, and ultimately the asserted need to radically redistribute limited wealth. In the latest twist, liberation theologians now espouse a "green agenda," which seeks to use environmental concerns to score more ideological points.

However, the policy agenda that these critics pursue, using frequent invocations of the Gospel, would actually have the opposite effects of what they desire: environmental improvements, better health for workers, cleaner communities and higher levels of prosperity. No matter how often or carefully it is moralized, the real goal of liberation theology and critics of globalization and economic development is political and economic power. This has been amply illustrated throughout the recent history of Latin America in El Salvador, Argentina, Venezuela and Peru.

Equally to the point, in all my experience with non-governmental organizations across the world, I have yet to see any of them do anything as effectively or extensively as Doe Run. They certainly have not done much to help the people in or around La Oroya.

The criticisms leveled against The Doe Run Company simply cannot be sustained, when they are held up against the company's very socially responsible track record. While there certainly are imperfections and delays in making some important and necessary things happen, these are due to the realities imposed by markets, finances, politics, manpower and circumstances.

Simply put, the world's imperfections impose constraints. Christian social teaching recognizes this and does not offer utopian solutions – but rather guidance on how to operate responsibly in the face of complex challenges. The Doe Run Company has been as forthcoming, transparent, effective and accountable as anyone can be in its efforts to be a socially responsible company.

Other companies and organizations should be so conscientious.

Fr. Phillip W. De Vous is the chaplain of Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, KY and an adjunct scholar of public policy at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI.

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