The presence of many of the world’s largest international NGOs does not necessarily mean that Swiss companies are more ethical than others
Switzerland is the country of non-governmental organisations. It is the European home of the United Nations, and the shore of Lake Geneva is thronged with international bodies working to make the world a better place: the International Labour Organisation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, to name a few.
The presence of so many international organisations does not necessarily mean that the ethical standards of Swiss companies are higher than others, however. “It doesn’t make any difference,” says Jean-Pierre Méan, president of Transparency International in Switzerland. Some international bodies even have their own ethical problems. The world football organisation Fifa, for example, with its 2010 income of $1.3bn dwarfing most companies, has “very poor” governance, Méan says. “They are not seriously doing anything to fight corruption.” And Fifa’s recent well-publicised scandals bear this out.
Like some corporations, some non-profit groups come to Switzerland because there are tax benefits and “it’s a nice place to live”, Méan adds.
Even the presence of the UN on the doorstep does not particularly act as a stimulus for Swiss companies to raise their ethical standards. At the end of May 2011, the supply division of the UN children’s fund, Unicef, published details of the prices it pays for vaccines. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which sells diphtheria, measles and tetanus vaccines, was the only Unicef supplier that refused to disclose its prices.
Steffen Bethmann, a researcher at Basel University’s Centre for Philanthropy Studies, says there tends to be a disconnect between Swiss NGOs and the country’s largest corporations. In Switzerland, the idea persists that philanthropy should be strategic, and should be a way to achieve competitive advantage, he says. Corporations are “sometimes reluctant to work with non-profits because they don’t see the link to their own operations”.
The largest firms prefer to organise philanthropic activities through their own foundations, he adds. Nestlé provides research grants through its Foundation for the Study of Problems of Nutrition in the World, with a particular focus on low-income countries. Roche has several foundations that sponsor medical research. The Credit Suisse Foundation supports educational projects, and has a disaster-relief fund and a “jubilee” fund, which supports organisations in Switzerland, such as the Swiss Guide and Scout Movement and the Swiss Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Among the most important and best known NGOs on a national level are the Red Cross, the environmental group Pro Natura, Pro Senectute, which is the Swiss equivalent of Help the Aged, and Pro Juventute, which promotes children’s rights. These are mainly funded by private donations, and large government contributions. Donations by companies are “not that big”, says Bethmann.
There is more activity on a local level, with exchanges between smaller companies and local charities, such as sports organisations. Thomas Pletscher of business federation Economiesuisse says this is often founded in Switzerland’s tradition of citizens carrying out “public jobs” alongside their daily employment.
Such part-time roles include involvement in local politics, the fire brigade and military service, which all Swiss men are required to do. “It is a Swiss tradition that companies enable their employees to participate in such activities far beyond their direct commercial interest,” Pletscher says.
Switzerland does have organisations specifically promoting corporate responsibility, with activities mainly directed at consulting with companies and persuading them to boost their corporate responsibility performance. Philias is a non-profit institute backed by public bodies such as the Swiss lottery and the city of Geneva, and companies such as fragrance maker Firmenich, which won an Ethical Corporation award in May.
Philias organises Switzerland’s annual Humagora conference, which is aimed at increasing the collaboration between companies and non-profit groups. Effective partnerships are recognised by the Humagora prize, given this year to Swiss recruitment agents Adecco and Orif, an organisation that helps people suffering from ill-health, or disabled people, enter or re-enter the workforce. Adecco and Orif had worked effectively to help disadvantaged jobseekers find work, Philias says.
Steffen Bethmann highlights a related initiative, Sozial Engagiert (socially engaged), a platform backed by a Zurich church foundation, as having national corporate responsibility impact. This promotes corporate citizenship, in particular through “social dating”, a service to team up companies and local and national non-profits. Social dating has resulted in companies helping out a variety of organisations in Switzerland, such as business news giant Bloomberg offering financial planning support to charities, and insurer Swiss Re backing the Swiss Society for Muscular Dystrophy.
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