Sunday, June 19, 2011

Principle of 'Inclusion' & Obligations of Business

The word 'Inclusion' here stands for a principle which implies 'The disadvantaged, marginalized or under-privileged is not left behind'. The principle has gained steady importance with growing multi-cultural society, activism in all facets of society and gap between have & have-nots. 

Lets explore various dimensions of this principle, how it can be promoted and imperatives for  a business.

Responsibility of Government
Governments have long realized that exclusion, i.e. alienation within a section of society harms the whole. Riots, terror and protests then become the means to vent the feelings. Governments frame policies/laws to ensure that all members of society feel valued, have equal access to resources, opportunities and feel a part of mainstream society. Political, Social and Economic inclusion are the three dimensions which governments focus on.

Economic Inclusion:
Economic exclusion occurs when a certain section of society do not have access to education, employment opportunities, banking, loan facilities etc. 

For instance, the poor villagers in south asia do not have access to bank loans and pay high interest rates to moneylenders. Microfinance, more rural banks, electronic id are some initiative towards financial inclusion. 
Poverty leads to exclusion from education and hence governments offers subsides, free education, mid-day meals and several other schemes to give equal opportunities to education and hence improve their employment potential. 

Political Inclusion:
Under-representation in political space and not having a political voice can lead to exclusion. The identity on which a group alienates himself can be anything - religion, caste, region, colour, tribe,  gender, language etc. The trouble starts when a group of people believe that they are being discriminated against and being left out of political space. Going forward, the group becomes fixated on that identity and separates itself from mainstream society. Governments hence sometime mandate a minimum number of representatives from such groups to give them a political voice and hence counter the alienation. 
Whether this approach is right or gives rise to identity politics is entirely an another debate altogether.

Social Inclusion:
Social exclusion occurs when members of mainstream society discriminates against a section of society. Again, divide can be created along many lines - religion, caste, region, colour, tribe,  gender, language, rich/poor, natives/migrants, age etc. The long term solution is to educate the society to live in a multi-cultural environment and not only accept but celebrate the differences. The training of which needs to start from school-days itself. Rights, freedom, fairness, justice, law and order are key enablers of maintaining social harmony. 
Government plays a key role by promoting community building and reconciliation exercises. Laws are also resorted to drive social inclusion. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have a major footprint in social inclusion initiatives.
Social inclusion issues cover a wide range. From the divide between natives and migrants to inclusion of mentally and physically challenged in education and sports.

These three dimensions (Political, Social & Economic) of inclusion overlap with each other and any exclusion issues in them feed into each other. All the three dimensions are to be addressed together to achieve inclusion. 

Obligations of Business
With growing focus towards inclusion, its natural that business world is expected to contribute in their own way. Companies can generally do their bit by following: 

Supplier Diversity:
It encourages businesses to source goods and services from vulnerable supplier base like that owned by  minority section, women, disabled etc. This initiative helps in economic upliftment of weaker section and hence contributes to their inclusion. For instance, agri-business companies are expected to include small-holders (farmers with small land holdings) in supply chain.

Equal Opportunity Employment:
The businesses are expected not to discriminate candidates based on gender, race, religion, colour, origin, disability etc., when considering them for hiring, firing, promotion, benefits, training and other workplace situations. Building an inclusive work culture in a diverse workforce is always a challenge but also provide tangible benefits if organisation is able to leverage diversity in perspectives and insights.

A caveat here. All inclusion measures discussed above does not mean to compromise meritocracy and fairness. Because then it would again mean wrong-ful exclusion.

Products & Services:
Businesses that provide essential products and services have an obligation towards inclusion by ensuring that no section of society is excluded from access to their products and services.

For instance, educational institutions are expected to keep their doors open for students from modest background and hence run scholarship schemes. They are also expected to extend the education to students with disability and hence have reserved seats and special facilities for them.

Healthcare is another area where companies like healthcare providers, pharma cos, insurers are obliged to support inclusion. Pharma companies have an obligation to ensure that their medicines are not out of reach for cash strapped members of society. Though one would argue that Pharma companies invest heavily in R&D and have right to profit-making. However, any profit-making by denying the needy puts them on the wrong side of the debate. 

Companies in food sector are expected to contribute towards food inclusion (provide access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet the dietary needs in socially acceptable way) which has been long an area of public policy and government run programs. 

The obligation towards inclusion also extends to other important sectors where companies have to ensure that people at Bottom of Pyramid have access to their products and services. Many companies have redesigned their operations, products and services to target weaker sections and are also making money in the process. FMCG and Banking sector provides several examples.

Inclusion should not be confused with philanthropy or charity. The roots of inclusion principle lie in basic tenets of human rights and dignity and hence has to be approached in same spirit. A business is under obligation to ingrain the inclusion principle without compromising on meritocracy and profitability.

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