Teaching CSR as a westerner in a non-western country

I have been a teacher and trainer in various subjects my whole professional life, with various results, but nothing is as difficult as teaching a subject to your students that may ‘Teach them a lesson’.

As a Westerner, I have been involved in training Corporate Social Responsibility and Cross Cultural Communications in Indonesia (the Jungle of West Papua) and in China. Many times I felt uncomfortable in teaching subjects where the West supposedly would be ‘better’ in than the host Country I was working in. CSR, Business Ethics, women rights, Human rights, time management and other subjects would be taught by me, a white (and wealthy) teacher from the West.

The White man’s burden of guilt and shame would be on my shoulder for some time, just by being there (paid by Western organizations sometimes to get there) would show that the West was superior in thinking and acting and still had to teach the non-Westerners how to think. And that with the background that the cheap products we want in the West are cheap because manufacturers are forced to cut labor costs to the minimum and thus making it very difficult to have a mind on Corporate Social Responsibility issues. ..Who am I to tell others what to think and why would I be any better than them? Would it not be better if a non –Westerner could teach and train these subjects?

So as I have been teaching CSR and CSR related subjects for a while, I had the opportunity to teach Law and ethics at the Law Faculty in the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, a Chinese State run University. My students were all Chinese, bright, curious and spoke English very well. I had the freedom to teach them anything related to law and ethics, but I kept in mind that I wanted to be able to teach more than once, and wanted to respect the fact that I was a guest in China, not one of them.

I started teaching them the fundamentals of Ethics in different cultures, including the various Chinese traditions, and had for instance the interesting question from a student, which one they should consider the best. Then I presented them for a few weeks different case studies in the field of business ethics and Law, and asked them for their opinion and reaction. I was careful in choosing my topics and after a few weeks my students discovered a pattern in my teaching; all the negative case studies were from the western Countries, US, Europe, and all the positive examples came from Asia.

They asked me why I did this, taking negative cases from my background and the positive from their own. And at that moment I could explain my two main reasons for doing so; I wasn’t just teaching them Law, ethics and CSR in a universal manner, I was teaching them as a Westerner, and therefor would have to have respect for my hosting Country; I am a guest in your Country, who am I to tell you what is right and wrong? I cannot completely fill the gap between the two our cultures, our different world, universal rights and wrongs are in the eye of the beholder…

But the most important reason why I would teach this way, was that I was teaching self- criticism to them: by opening up about the negative aspects in Western Countries, and showing them how they (sometimes) solved these problems, I as a Westerner was open about the mistakes made by Westerners; now I wanted my Chinese friends to do the same, to be self-critical to their own mistakes.

I have taken this self- critical strategy in CSR training to the heart of my training; I am not just teaching and training a pack of procedures, regulations and ideas, but I want to teach in an appropriate strategy towards a better attitude for each group of people I am teaching. This means that in Non-Western Countries, I take a humble attitude and teach them what the West did wrong, so that they can do better.