Corporate responsibility is everyone’s duty

Fair dialogue is needed between politicians, corporations and employees

It is not easy these days to find companies that are expanding in Lebanon. Uncertainty rules the economic climate and the only thing safely said about this year’s business prospects is that there are so many variables that macroeconomic forecasts are even shakier than in ‘normal’ times. But there are corporate examples for optimism — even if some can be described as hoping against probability. There also are companies that tell Executive of investments and expansions that will mean the creation of new jobs in areas such as hospitality and trade.

One company to talk new business last month was Beirut Waterfront Development, which is set to open the Beirut Yacht Club this spring (see story). Another was Spinneys, the retail chain that has more stores and new concepts in the pipeline for Lebanon (see story and interview). The two represent very different corporate narratives. With the Yacht Club, Waterfront Development is invested in a segment of the real estate and hospitality market where exclusivity is the aim and targeted profit margins in the sale of a few super-pricy apartments are a function of scarcity. Spinneys is a mass retailer of fast-moving consumer goods whose daily bread is beating the competition on price and whose mantra is winning on razor-thin margins.

But besides professing corporate optimism, both have another factor in common: they have been targets of huge criticism. Waterfront Development was accused by one media outlet of building a “boardwalk of corruption” in the St. Georges Bay — arguing that the company was part of a scheme to abuse public property for private gain. In 2012 activists attacked the Spinneys chief executive as ‘CEO against freedoms’, with allegations over their working conditions.

Media and activists are important parts of society and as Lebanon matures toward a more open and inclusive society their contributions are important. Similarly, criticism and exposure of corporate ills are an essential feature of their watchdog functions. And when it comes to Lebanon’s huge need for more social equity, the protection of the country from disgraceful private use of public property and the preservation of labor rights are absolute priorities.
However, the virtues of standing up for the little guy and for the public good must preserve the dignity of these causes. The responsibility to present facts and argue with fairness is incumbent not only on news media but also on activists. Even the simplest examination of the accusations against Spinneys and Waterfront Development showed that the companies were often not given a fair hearing.  Most significantly, the attacks against both companies were pushed forward not only by media and activists but also by leading Lebanese politicians, while a politician was also the main target in the attack on Waterfront Development.

The entanglement of political figures points to a major dilemma as the Lebanese wait for a new government to help find a solution to our macroeconomic trough. The dilemma is that the Lebanese need their politicians to be active but that the political class is perceived, often with good reason, as producing more problems than solutions.

Politicians should speak out against abuse of public properties and scrutinize economic actors for treating their employees fairly. But if politicians single out one and keep silent about all the others, they raise suspicion that their motives are not pure. And by damaging companies that otherwise would grow, it loads another straw onto the back of this heavily burdened camel that is the Lebanese economy.

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