Profit-Seeking Corporate Social Responsibility in Developing Countries: The Risk of Conflating CSR and R&D


  • Helena Barnard Past Vice-President, Academy of International Business; University of Pretoria South Africa
  • Katherina Glac Pattit University of St Thomas



Strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR) has drawn praise for representing the "sweet spot" between communities’ needs and firms’ resources, capabilities and efforts. But what if the concept is pushed to its limits? A firm can initiate CSR projects not just to help communities, but to directly realize profit from them. In this conceptual paper, we ask how CSR is understood and functions when the intent of CSR projects is to conduct a form of research and development (R&D). The intended innovations are not science-based, but socially oriented; they seek to determine how to profitably meet the needs of poor people in developing countries. We develop our argument from conversations with managers and teaching cases that explain how executives believe CSR helps firms (learn how) to profitably serve new potential customers – whether through developing new markets or new products and services with a social purpose. Using CSR as a form of "living R&D" allows firms to make mistakes and to avoid short-term shareholder pressures. But there are very real risks to what in essence is unregulated experimentation on poor people, and we highlight some of them. Our argument highlights the ways in which such innovation and profit-oriented CSR challenge thinking on both CSR and R&D, and we make practical recommendations for how to ensure that intended beneficiaries are not harmed, but can instead benefit.

Author Biographies

Helena Barnard, Past Vice-President, Academy of International Business; University of Pretoria South Africa

Helena Barnard (PhD, Rutgers University) is Professor at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) of the University of Pretoria. She was the Academy of International Business (AIB) Vice President for Administration and is currently the founding chairperson of the Emerging Markets Special Interest Group of AIB. From 2018 to 2019, she was the John Dunning Fellow at the University of Reading. Helena Barnard has published numerous papers in leading journals including in the Journal of ManagementJournal of International Business StudiesResearch Policy, Journal of World Business. Prof Barnard is an area editor for the Journal of International Business Policy and Africa Journal of Management. 

Katherina Glac Pattit, University of St Thomas

Katherina Pattit (PhD, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) is Dean of the Herberger Business School at University of St Thomas (Minnesota). Her research interests cover a variety of subject areas including corporate social responsibility, responsible growth, investor decision making and corporate governance. Currently, Pattit is studying how companies manage their boundaries in the social media space and how that affects employee privacy. She is also collaborating on a project on how corporate social initiatives are perceived by the recipient communities in South Africa.



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How to Cite

Barnard, H., & Pattit, K. (2022). Profit-Seeking Corporate Social Responsibility in Developing Countries: The Risk of Conflating CSR and R&D. Journal of Comparative International Management, 25(1), 61–83.



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