CSR, community shareholding or fishing rights?

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The Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources earlier this week was reported in the local media expressing dissatisfaction with the level of corporate social responsibility (CSR) practiced by the Namibian fishing companies.

Surely the dissatisfaction of the minister is understandable and must be understood, all things being equal. Especially, once all the financial figures of the various companies in the sector, whether separate or in aggregate, have been collated, analysed and understood in their full business contexts.

There are close to 300 fishing rights holders, whose companies have been handing out donations to communities to the tune of about N$160 000 a year each.

Now this figure does not give the full picture for us to be able to assess whether the companies in question and/or fishing right holders are ploughing back enough in their communities.

But surely the minister must know what he is talking about, having been at the helm of the responsible ministry, and would thus should be conversant and knowledgeable about the goings on in these companies, their profitability and the happenings in the broader fishing industry.

One cannot agree less or more with the minister of fisheries that surely because the various rights holders are benefitting from the country’s national resources, they must be assumed to have been profiteering, and that these profits must somehow trickle down to communities, or at least have a trickle-down effect on local communities, if not the entire country.

But it is a very well known fact that despite fishing rights, most right holders have been – if anything better – been merely riding roughshod vis-à-vis vessel owners, who seem to have been calling the shots most of the time, if not outright exploiting fishing right holders, most of them new entrants.

Also, because of them being new entrants they have been in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis established operators and vessel owners. Thus the playing field in this fishing arena is far from level.

Until then, as much as at the end of the day the previously disadvantaged right holders may have some change to take home and are expected to share it with their communities, it is not clear how much change is and has been accruing to them, given some unscrupulous elements who have been monopolising the sector and jealously guarding against any intrusion by new entrants.

Needless to say, until the playing field has been satisfactorily levelled, it may be preposterous to expect too much from especially the previously disadvantaged fishing right holders, who every day of their venturing are and have been sweating and toiling to charter the difficult waters of the Namibian fishing industry.

As well-intentioned as the concept of CSR may be, one cannot help but doubt its effect and impact, especially as a tool of wealth redistribution and poverty eradication – not as long as the beneficiaries are most of the time, and perhaps until eternity, passive helpless recipients from the perceived real venturers and investors.

As opposed to being active participants and equal co-owners of the resources in question, they are made to live off hand-outs from their accepted and more adventurous venturers, while a few of them may be described as real venturers and investors.

Yes, everyone of them cannot be tarred with the same brush, as there are real venturers out there.
But equally there have been fewer venturers than vultures siphoning off the natural resources of the country, while only lip-servicing communities that they are expected to uplift and empower.

This begs the question whether CRS has been the better option, instead of making various communities the direct fishing right holders and thus co-owners of the resources of the country.

Granted, that not every community member can realistically be expected to become a venturer, let alone in the fishing industry or anywhere else, there is nothing mitigating against communities having requisite and suitable shares in fishing companies, thus becoming rightful owners of the country’s fisheries and marine resources.

As the fisheries minister rightly observes, CSR contributions to communities are “insignificant” compared to the profits of right holders and the N$10 billion in fish exports raked in in 2014/2015.

But is this not because communities are currently on the fringes of the re-distribution of resources?

Currently communities are mere recipients of CSR handouts and not co-owners and role players in the various fishing companies who are the right holders and shall continue to be until… Who knows? Perhaps forever.

If local communities become shareholders then what accrues to them would not be mere handouts, but dividends, and the minister’s concern about the insignificance of CSR contributions would only be an academic exercise in the face of such real and meaningful redistribution and empowerment.

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