Large-scale farming and philanthropic CSR in Argentina: ethical motives amid low public pressure

24 August 2021

The agricultural sector in total and large-scale farms in particular are commonly associated with sensitive social and environmental issues like intensification of production, extinction of small farms, loss of biodiversity, animal welfare issues etc. Some scholars suggest that companies may embrace socially responsible policies in response to social and institutional pressures. The corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities undertaken by private companies have been shown to address external pressures (from formal and informal institutions) and internal factors (arising at the organizational or farm level). However, most studies on this topic have given little attention to the individual motivations of the owners and senior management of large-scale farms to implement CSR practices. 

A recent study on institutions and individual values motivating CSR activities in agroholdings co-authored by Anna Hajdu, Marcos F. Daziano, and Oane Visser and published in the special issue of International Food and Agribusiness Management Review (IFAMR) deals with this research gap. In particular, the study investigates how the senior management of large farms and agroholdings in Argentina, a country where large-scale forms of agricultural production have widely developed since the 1990s, perceives and acts to address social issues. The article aims to identify which social issues the interviewed managers consider as most acute, which social responsibility activities they decide to implement, and what their motivations are to opt for CSR from an institutional theory perspective.

Methods and data

The authors combined qualitative thematic analysis with theoretical development. They conducted in-depth and semi-structured interviews with the owners and top managers of large-scale Argentinian producers of cash crops (wheat, corn, sunflower, and soy), citrus fruit, and sugarcane. The interviewed farms are operating 1,000 hectares or more in several provinces in the Pampas region and the Northwestern part of Argentina. In total, 18 managers from 17 companies were interviewed, of them 12 managers representing family-owned businesses. 

Results

Managers’ perceptions of social issues

The study shows that poverty and lack of education are believed to be Argentina’s main social concerns, both in urban and rural regions. Most interviewees perceive poverty and associated lack of education and skills among community members as most acute social issues, far more important than the issues commonly addressed in the literature: land grabbing, conflicts over land between small and large farms, or decrease in the number of family farms.

Types of corporate social responsibility activities

The CSR activities undertaken by the interviewed managers range from a mix of basic product or money donations to targeted project campaigns developed by companies on their own or together with schools and health organizations. Both donations and targeted campaigns aim to address specific social issues like substance abuse, child labor, sexual education, women’s employment opportunities and others. In particular, 16 out of 17 companies reported that they give ad hoc donations for social purposes. Four companies have founded an NGO to develop and coordinate CSR campaigns. At least three companies collaborate with academic research institutions to address environmental issues. One company in the region of Tucuman collaborates with a professional consultancy to develop social projects targeted to the company’s employees. 

Notably, most managers mentioned job creation as the main way to contribute to addressing social issues. In this context, some previous studies have shown that companies tend to include activities like regular tax payments, creation of new jobs and abiding by the law into CSR activities mainly in poor institutional settings, where formal law enforcement is weak.

Motivations for CSR activities 

In general, the motivations of the interviewed managers for CSR are instrumental as they aim to ensure the wellbeing of their companies through supporting human development in the regions of their presence. At the same time, 14 out of 18 managers referred to individual values that motivate them to conduct CSR activities. This way, their normative (ethical) motivations for CSR activities complement an instrumental interest in the success of their companies. Based on the interview responses, instrumental and normative considerations are not mutually exclusive. 

The thematic analysis conducted by the authors shows that managers of large farms and agroholdings in Argentina do not experience any sectoral nor national-level institutional pressure as there are no formal constraints, compulsory political regulation, or normative pressure of professional groups (e.g., through farmers’ associations or other independent organizations) in relation to the most acute social problems, that is poverty and lack of education. At the same time, export-oriented soybean and citrus producers report pressure from international institutions: to be able to export their commodities, the companies have to comply with social and environmental standards set by international certification bodies. Also, the interviewees mentioned that local educational and health organizations in the regions of their operations, such as schools and NGOs, hope for some social support and expect the companies to develop and implement related CSR activities.

The results of the study also suggest that the individual values of managers such as identification, benevolence and obligation are predominant in family-owned companies and motivate philanthropic CSR activities even in the absence of pressure from other formal and informal institutions: the managers express moral responsibility toward society driven by future normative societal expectations. 

By Anna Hajdu and Anna Feshchenko

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