Corporate social responsibility (CSR) continues to gain momentum in Asia, but with such cultural diversity across the region, many companies still struggle to deliver a global CSR programme that can deliver local impact. Often, local CSR programmes become ad hoc donations to charities or one-off sponsorships of local events. While these efforts will certainly help build community relations and may provide evidence of corporate commitment, they fall short of delivering on the full potential of CSR in Asia. The companies that have the most success in this area are the ones which recognise that harnessing their strongest assets and know-how is what can really make a difference in improving lives in the communities in which they operate.
One such example is Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. Its biggest strength lies in research and development of new drugs. It recently embarked upon a CSR programme that revolves around drug discovery into diseases that afflict the developing world, such as dengue fever and tuberculosis, by setting up the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) in Singapore.
In order to do this, it needed to attract the best scientists in the world to the NITD in Singapore, through the promise of innovative, life-saving research that might otherwise never be undertaken. No medicine exists to treat dengue fever, and the medicines used to treat TB are increasingly ineffective as the virus becomes resistant.
The search for treatments is now on, with the NITD aiming to have discovered compounds and start the clinical trial process by 2008 - an ambitious timeline in medical development terms. The CEO of Novartis, Dr Daniel Vasella, has already pledged that these medicines will be given free to those who cannot afford to buy them.
The programme has helped enhance Novartis' corporate reputation and elevate the company above harsh criticism of the pharmaceutical industry by media and NGOs for being profit-driven and neglecting the needs of people in developing countries.
Building bridges with NGOs is critical. NGO support for the NITD has been widespread, with strong backing from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Representatives from both groups recently spoke at the NITD's Scientific Symposium and Workshop and participated in a media briefing held prior to the conference. The chair of the NITD has the unprecedented honour of being invited to join the MSF's Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) board.
Regional and international media are also supporting the effort. This year alone, the NITD has been praised in hundreds of news reports in over 20 countries around the world.
The NITD is an example of a pharma company's commitment to improving the health and standard of living of people around the world. It is also a good example of a CSR programme that targets real needs and issues, and leverages the company's strengths for the benefit of the community.