Our course designers seem to be swayed by the easy method of “copy paste” material from some textbooks written by foreign writers or university curricula with an additional section like “Business Ethics and CSR in Nepal” to give it a Nepali flavour
Two tragedies in 2013 and 2014 drew global attention and triggered debate on business ethics and social responsibility. On 24 April 2013, Rana Plaza – an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,129 people and injuring 2,515 more. The building used to house several garment industries producing world famous brand items. The reason behind the collapse was faulty construction as a result of corruption in issuing building permits. Exactly a year after, on 16 April 2014, a ferry carrying school students on an excursion trip sank in South Korea drowning over 300 students. The accident happened primarily because of negligence, corruption and mismanagement rather than bad weather conditions.
Nepal’s private sector business too is no less in disrepute. The private sector business is often accused of smuggling, black-marketing, and adulteration, selling fake products, collusion, cartelling and outright bribery. We have now health, education and transport mafias. Our finance and cooperative sector is riddled with thugs and swindlers.
Last year, we saw how FNCCI – an apex body of the private sector business – dragged into controversy when a more than three decades old corruption case related to its president got reopened. Similarly, media got rocked when the police nabbed the fugitive directors of the Unity Life Insurance who swindled, from 400,000 members, billions of rupees through their Ponzi-like scheme.The Nepali media is constantly rocked by corporate scandals, sleaze and system failures. In the past, we have seen how a booming private sector carpet industry collapsed after being charged with unethical practices like the use of child labour, infringement of labour rights and environmental concerns. Nepal’s private sector business is constantly facing ethical dilemmas. One way to deal with business ethical dilemmas is to prepare future managers through proper education and training.
However, if one browses through courses on business ethics in Nepal, one will be shocked to find it bare minimum. The treatment is not only scarce and scanty; but they are also spread around different subjects to be taught. They are also grossly outdated and lack proper treatment. Remember the management mantra: Do not expect better outputs from low quality inputs. Our largest and the oldest university, Tribhuvan University, and its Faculty of Management, is now planning to introduce a separate course on Business Ethics and Social Responsibility. Interestingly, the course has been planned first at a Bachelor-level program in business administration. If one is talking of preparing future generation of managers, it should have targeted master-level students. This is what I call upside down thinking going with academic pundits in the university.
The course on business ethics and social responsibility has become the most popular course all over the world. In 2001, only one-third of business schools required their students to take this course. It has reached 80 per cent now.
At a time when ethical issues are gaining so much currency, having a new course is definitely a welcome move. But the designers have failed to understand the relevancy and the context. Our course designers seem to be swayed by the easy method of “copy paste” material from some textbooks written by foreign writers or from foreign university curricula with an additional section like “Business Ethics and CSR in Nepal” to give it a Nepali flavour. I have seen this problem not just with this subject matter; this thing has been happening since pretty long.
How can you talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility if you do not even spell out “UN Global Compact” in the course material? In the course one finds mentioned concepts like bribery, gift giving, whistle blowing, money laundering, insider trading and conflict of interest. But these are the variants of global anti-corruption movement. With the induction of anti-corruption principle as the tenth principle of UN Global Compact in 2004, private sector engagement in anti-corruption has become a global agenda of business enterprises. There is not even any mentioning of a single website as a source of materials and learning for the students. Imagine what kind of ethic education you are imparting to the business students in the age of the internet? Instead of giving drab lectures one can enliven the class sessions by introducing live cases. They are simply not there.
The late management guru Prof Peter Drucker has posed management as “doing right things” and “doing things right”. All ethical dilemmas of business revolve around trying to discern “right things” from “things right”. Justice Potter Stewart has said that ethics is all about knowing the difference between (a) what you have a right to do and (b) what is right to do. The word “right” has a double meaning here. The first one refers to your power or an authority to do something while the second one refers to moral correctness of your decisions and actions. This definition is similar to American version of freedom: A person’s right to swing his fist is determined by the proximity of another man’s jaw. Obviously, teaching business ethics is not simple and straight forward. Basically, you have to reconcile between market goals and moral goals – that is between profits and social responsibilities.
A version of this article appears in print on February 24, 2016 of The Himalayan Times.