In addition to social enterprise, I’m also interested in how foreign corruption affects corporate governance and compliance. One of my current projects involves looking at where these areas intersect.
I was drawn to this topic because the developing world is often where social enterprises can do the most good, but, sadly, the developing world is also where corruption tends to be the most prevalent. Can a social enterprise do business in a country where nearly every public official demands bribes? Most traditional corporations will probably answer that question in the affirmative. A transnational oil and gas firm, for example, ought to have the resources to resist or at least mitigate the compliance challenges presented by corruption. Moreover, some traditional firms will likely approach corruption from a strictly economic perspective. The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits firms from paying bribes to foreign officials for the purpose of getting business. Firms that violate the statute face stiff monetary and reputational sanctions. But if the risk of detection is low and the potential gains from a corrupt transaction are high, managers could be tempted to go ahead and make a payoff to improve the financial bottom line.
The issue arguably becomes more complex in the case of a social enterprise. Social enterprises seek first and foremost to create a public benefit. Their managers must balance the mission and profit goals of socially oriented investors, employees, and other stakeholders. Accordingly, the question of whether to bribe is not simply a matter of weighing detection probabilities and potential gains. Managers will also need to anticipate, assess, and work through the ancillary effects of corruption—including market distortion, erosion of the rule of law, and negative effects on employee morale—when making decisions.
Perhaps some social-enterprise managers will elect to pay bribes on the theory that they will be serving the greater good by getting their products to those in need. They might conclude that the harms and enforcement risks from bribery are worth the benefit of providing people with, say, healthier sanitation options or cheaper energy. Others, though, will surely resist bribery altogether on moral or social welfare grounds. For these managers, the question becomes whether they can remain in markets with endemic corruption. This is a tough situation. If social enterprises decide to withdraw or otherwise limit their activities in certain markets, the obvious downside is their inability to positively affect citizens in distress. Whether other actors will step in and fill the gaps they leave behind is an open question.
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