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Lebanon builds up leadership for CSR in Middle East

Lebanon is surprisingly emerging as a leader in actively promoting new concepts and engagement in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the Middle East, despite the country's economic uncertainties. Independent consulting firm CSR Lebanon recently held the 3rd CSR Lebanon Forum attended by more than 500 leaders from the business community, government, civil society and academia.

Held on March 18 and 19, and under the patronage of His Excellency President of the Republic of Lebanon Michel Sleiman, the Forum, entitled "Corporate Social Responsibility in Times of Uncertainty" featured a panel of 30 high-profile international, regional and local corporate sustainability experts, along with chief representatives from the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

All speakers and international representatives provided strong business cases which Lebanon can build upon to promote responsible business practices and transparent sustainability reporting.

In his opening remarks, UN Global Compact Executive Director Georg Kell urged Lebanon's business leaders and officials to collaborate with entrepreneurs to build the pillars of the Global Compact Local Network.

"I hope we can build a Local Network in Lebanon that strives towards building social value," said Kell. "Businesses can collaborate strategically with governments in this regard," he added.

CSR Lebanon was recently appointed by the UN Global Compact to be the focal point for gathering interested businesses in Lebanon, and will seek to establish a robust governance structure for the Lebanese Local Network by 2014.

Global Reporting Initiative deputy chief executive Teresa Fogelberg explained that wide-scale sustainability reporting helps to generate credibility at a national level. "There is no focal point in the MENA region for GRI. Why Lebanon for CSR? But why not? " She asked. "Sustainability reporting is the result of companies responding to a call by their people to be transparent," Fogelberg explained.

Other speakers at the opening session were Lebanese Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian who represented President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Deputy Central Bank Governor Saad Andari also spoke on behalf of Governor Riad Salameh, followed by Fransabank Chairman Adnan Kassar who stated that the business community and the UN share mutual goals of peace and sustainability that lead to prosperity and wealth creation.

A panel on "Promoting Responsible Business and Investment in High-Risk Areas & the Role of Government" noted the benefits of business support in promoting corporate responsibility in the country. Relevant guidance developed by the UN Global Compact and Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) was introduced by Kell at the beginning of the session.

"The state is the weakest link in the network and lacks any active involvement," MP Ghassan Mukheiber told participants. Moukheiber added that before his arrival to the Forum he submitted a draft bill to create a Charitable Trusts Foundation that sets policies and frameworks for NGOs and include tax incentives to support the private sector with CSR. "Lebanon is a case study where regulation is not a politics-free option; this hinders development and business ethics," the MP said.

Ziad Hayek, secretary-general of Lebanon's Higher Council for Privatization, said no short-term solutions existed to support CSR in Lebanon, arguing that the government should draft a long-term policy to promote transparency and fight corruption while providing incentives to encourage firms to endorse CSR voluntarily.

During a panel discussion on integrating strategic environmental solutions throughout business supply chains, Lila Karbassi, Head of Environment and Climate for the UN Global Compact, suggested that companies should assess and consult with stakeholders to develop goals and implement a targeted strategy.

"Even in times of uncertainty, companies must incorporate environmental responsibility because being proactive can have positive long-term benefits," she said.

Additional topics targeted youth, for example corporate sustainability in education and social entrepreneurship. Adoption of the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) was discussed as an avenue for universities in Lebanon and the region to inspire responsible management education, research and thought leadership. More than 100 business students and professors from major universities in Lebanon participated in the Forum.

Among the speakers were Professor David Grayson, head of Doughty Center for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University, Are-JosteinNorheim, CSR Ambassador at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Dwayne Baraka, Business Support and Development Director at Business in the Community.

The event sponsors include Banque du Liban, Fransabank, Majid Al Futtaim Properties, Waterfront City, First National Bank, Visa, and Cimenterie Nationale. The Forum was also supported by Middle East Airlines, BankMed, Business in the Community and CR Academy in the U.K. and the Doughty Center for Corporate Responsibility, as well as UN Global Compact and Principles for Responsible Management Education, Global Reporting Initiative, and Agence Francaise de Developpment.

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