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War, Chaos & CSR in Afghanistan

Everyone’s abuzz about corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. Newscorp chief Rupert Murdoch’s appearance before the British Parliament this morning to answering questions on these topics no doubt add to the frenzy. But it’s not a frenzy in Afghanistan, where corporate governance and social responsibility are foundations of hope.

It’s a foundation that came to light on September 22nd at the Los Angeles Convention Centre, where Ehsan Bayat ascended the stage to receive the 2010 Mahatma Gandhi Humanitarian Award. The Friends of South Asian American Communities and the Afghan California Business Council bestowed the honour in recognition of his humanitarian efforts. Mr Bayat, an Afghan businessman and entrepreneur who launched the Afghan Wireless Communication Company (the nation’s first GSM wireless and internet service provider) in 2002 and the Ariana Radio and Television Network (ATN) in 2005, was the recipient of an award given for “resistance to tyranny based on a philosophy of non-violence leading to civil rights and freedom.”

Ariana Radio and Television Network conducting an interview

Tyranny can be resisted with a multitude of swords, and among the many admirable Afghan people advocating for civil rights and freedom are businesspeople whose efforts to assist their compatriots while supporting their own livelihoods are winning well-deserved attention. A chaotic myriad of serious security issues, barriers to health and education for large swaths of the population (especially women), and ineffective development projects currently plague Afghan society. The need for Afghan entrepreneurs to run thriving businesses that support their communities is pressing; when Mr Bayat left the stage that night it was clear that he and his staff in Afghanistan are up to the challenge.

 

Both of Mr Bayat’s enterprises support the Bayat Foundation, which has helped to build health clinics, schools, roads, bridges, waterpoints, and mosques around the country. Last year, the foundation announced three Empowering Women Grants, the first made to the Business Council for Peace (BPeace), designed to nurture and coach aspiring female entrepreneurs in Mazar-e-Sharif. The other grants went to the Justice for All Organisation (JFAO) to provide legal advice to disadvantaged women who cannot afford representation or are not aware of their legal rights and Women for Women International (WfWI) to administer skills training and business support for vulnerable Afghan women.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has a nebulous definition and can be exercised in any number of ways; Mr Bayat’s own model is multifaceted. Recognising his country’s needs for effective media and communications, Mr Bayat’s Ariana Radio and Television Network (ATN) provides original content to rekindle Afghan culture and traditions as well as English-language programming to bring the rest of the world to Afghans and Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. ATN programming places particular emphases in education, health, children’s programmes, and women’s issues. Afghan CSR is not just about using the outputs of enterprise to support separate charities, but designing enterprises whose entire purpose is sustained around creating a positive impact in Afghan society.

In his acceptance speech, Bayat quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “We do not need to [teach] either by our speech or by our writing. We can only do so really with our lives. Let our lives be open books for all to study.” CSR is of incredible importance in Afghanistan as the country struggles to rebuild its economy and improve the quality of life for its citizens. Commendable businesspeople such as Mr Bayat are providing valuable services while ensuring their actions serve as open books to tell stories of responsibility and dedication.

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