The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach as a framework for business involvement in health promotion in the welfare state

Abstract: This dissertation is to be situated in the debate about the development of the contemporary Western European welfare state, its displacement of responsibilities from state to non-state societal actors and the resulting concerns vis-à-vis the optimal distribution of responsibilities. Drawing, in interdisciplinary fashion, from the fields of political sociology, political economics, welfare studies, public health policy, and management, it focuses upon the involvement of for-profit, non-state actors into a field traditionally of state competence, that of public health. In order to do so, are considered two spheres of research and practice that frame and motivate the involvement of business actors in public health in the welfare state, and that have been seldom crossed: the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach and the health promotion approach. Through the means of a qualitative policy analysis relying on a variety of methods, literature review, document analysis, case studies and participant observation, this dissertation sets out to identify the features of business involvement in health promotion through CSR, and to examine and discuss the issues arising from such involvement in the context of the Western European welfare state. Specifically, the purpose is that of participating to the clarification and discussion of the potential contributions and dilemmas CSR initiatives pose for health promotion policy and practice, as well as unveiling the limits to such contribution. The findings suggest that initiatives formulated within the CSR framework are apt to allow business actors to further contextual health promotion priorities and approaches, as well as enabling the advancing of social capital and trust building at local level. Nevertheless, such contributions were found to be partial, limited by a number of specific boundaries inherent to the way the CSR approach is configured and to the way it is applied. Boundaries are resumed in terms of: coexistent rationalities and partial understandings concerning the CSR approach; lack of awareness of business actors concerning the health promotion approach and its dimensions; positive understanding of social responsibility; and limited instruments for cross-sectoral negotiation and collaboration. On the basis of the findings, the dissertation refutes the dilemmas, presented in literature, concerning the potential for CSR initiatives to constitute a mean for the scaling back of governmental responsibilities or the divulgation of a narrow understanding of health. On the other hand, it confirms their potential instrumentality to the pursuit of opportunistic objectives, such as market differentiation and regulation avoidance. The information collected did not allow discussing the aptitude for CSR initiatives to constitute channels for the direct lobbying of political élites or the exercise of organizational control upon employees. The dissertation further warns that the selection of causes, beneficiaries, and social partners operated in absence of mechanisms of alignment with contextual priorities and of inclusion of stakeholder interest into business decision-making may lead to CSR initiatives emphasising, rather than counterbalancing, inequalities in the access to resources and opportunities for health. Ultimately, it is recommended for the term CSR to be modified as to better fit the ensemble of business actors that may engage in the approach, for instance, substituting it with the more encompassing term social responsibility of businesses, or with any other term apt to the depict the dialogic purpose of CSR.

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