Corporate social responsibility: Lessons from the South on law and business norms

Date19 May 2009
Publication Date19 May 2009
AuthorClaire Moore Dickerson
Claire Moore Dickerson
Corporate social responsibility describes the role that society expects of
business organizations. Because it is difficult to see societal norms in one’s
own society, comparative law can help us increase the salience of those
norms in our own community. Looking at how a set of business laws
uniform across 16 West and Central African countries lives in one of the
member states, Cameroon, we see that society expresses its norms not
only when behavior tracks the positive law, but also, and very importantly,
when it diverges from that law. After studying examples of divergence in
the South, specifically in the African country Cameroon, the chapter turns
to the North. Using the United States as the illustration, and focusing on
the role of business entities, the chapter identifies ways of opening the
discussion among all political constituents, even those outside the
traditional business community.
Law & Economics: Toward Social Justice
Research in Law and Economics: A Journal of Policy, Volume 24, 131–157
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 0193-5895/doi:10.1108/S0193-5895(2009)0000024010
Among legal professionals, a discussion of the corporation’s role in society
focuses on applicable laws. That is not surprising: we tend to value our own
stock-in-trade. Law professors question the appropriateness of corporate
governance statutes by considering what managerial behavior they
encourage, and activists bring suits to attack specific provisions they
consider nonproductive. These efforts come both from the left and the right,
and they confirm the importance of national laws.
That, at least, is how things look from the North. In Cameroon, where I
spent three months in the course of two years, I explored the limits of
national laws’ usefulness in influencing business organizations. Business in
the South can take shape relatively untrammeled by business laws, but
research in Cameroon confirms that business does get done. This research
reveals three fundamental concepts. First, corporate social responsibility is
deeply political. That is, society’s determination of the role that corpora-
tions are to play within that community is political. Typically, the desired
role falls somewhere along a spectrum that at one end allocates all interests
to owners, a model often called ‘‘shareholder primacy,’’ and at the other end
allocates those interests across a wider range of stakeholders, including
some combination of employers, suppliers, customers, and sometimes even
some portion of the local community.
Second, corporate governance standards embedded in the business laws
have a limited ability to channel corporate behavior, especially in the face of
divergent cultural norms. These points of divergence appear when there is
persistent disobedience of legal norms or when players are systemati-
cally behaving ‘‘better’’ than the legal standard requires. The third basic
concept is that these behaviors help reveal the cultural norms that under-
gird the relevant community’s true understanding of corporate social
A comparative study finds parallels in the North, specifically in the
United States: corporate social responsibility is a political phenomenon;
corporate governance laws implement the corporate social responsibility
norm and simultaneously both influence and are defined by that overarching
norm. Because the split between national laws and applicable culture is not
as marked in the North as in the South, corporate governance laws in the
United States do tend to implement, and thus to reflect, the applicable
corporate social responsibility norm. Where, instead, corporate governance
laws diverge from behavior, corporate social responsibility is again
highlighted by the dissonance.

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