Christine Bader on ‘The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist’

Christine Bader spoke at the Carnegie Council earlier this month about her book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When GIrl Meets Oil. Essentially, the book is her attempt to reconcile her own time working in corporate social responsibility for BP and feeling like the company was doing all the right things out of a genuine desire to get it right, with the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

I was investing in the health and well-being of communities, living around big BP projects, because everybody in the company who I worked with understood that what was good for those communities was good for business.

It was fascinating work. I was going to West Papua, at the remote tip of Indonesia. Then I was working in China on a chemicals joint venture, where we were going to be bringing 15,000 migrant workers into a town of about 30,000 people, again ensuring that we could mitigate the risks and the upheaval to communities there. It was fascinating, amazing work [full transcript here].

Bader concludes, later, that those projects were model projects because there was so much potential for things to go horribly wrong: an enormous amount of political and social risk – and international attention – that made the corporate social responsibility environment there different, perhaps, from that of other projects.

So there were all these factors that created this perfect storm for senior management to basically give us whatever we wanted that we thought was necessary to mitigate the risks.

I didn’t realize at the time that that was so unique, that I could call up headquarters and be like, “Hi. Could I have $100,000 to do a human rights impact assessment?” “Sure. Take whatever you need.”

That’s part of the journey of the book, actually—years later, wondering what happened with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, actually going back and thinking, “What was so special, what was so unique about my time there?”

So that’s what I think happened there. There was a sort of perfect storm of factors that made the company throw whatever we needed behind trying to get this project right.

The whole talk is very interesting. Bader argues from the assumption that development is inevitable, but that companies have a responsibility to mitigate the externalities on local communities. She further argues that the corporate philanthropy model is flawed, and that the proper social role of the corporation must be constantly kept in mind: i.e. companies shouldn’t play a large political role or step into positions of governance or governance training.

Bader’s views are very similar to my own, but I found it refreshing to hear a former insider’s perspective, and to be reminded that corporations are on the whole made up of good people who want to do the right thing, or at least not the blatantly wrong and abusive thing. The challenge is to create a regulatory framework that aligns these largely decent instincts with the legal purpose of a corporation: to make profits.


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