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Why does the sustainability experience of an emerging country matter: Swiss student perspective

More and more people in the world started to acknowledge the importance of knowledge exchange across different countries and regions in order to create a path leading towards a greener, more responsible and sustainable future. Young researchers and scholars play a vital role in this process as they can seize the momentum and focus more on the experiences of the emerging states in sustainability. Clémentine Robert, oikos Outreach Manager, sat with Loïc Krähenbühl, Project Manager at swissnex India, to discuss his thesis on the peculiarities of CSR in India.

Sustainability challenges are widely spread around the world: emerging countries are no exception and certainly present distinctive characteristics from developed nations.  As for the topic of CSR, they do not receive as much attention as developed countries from scholars, which is a shame” – explained Loïc. He shared with us what are the advantages of doing the thesis on a completely unfamiliar country, how it broadens your horizons, challenges you and how rewarding the results of your efforts can be.

Could you present yourself in a few words?

My name is Loïc, I am 25 years old and I come from Blonay, a village above Vevey in the french part of Switzerland. I did my bachelor at the business school of the University of Lausanne (HEC) in business administration. At that point, I was determined to pursue a career in finance and choose a master accordingly.

However, a gap year between my bachelor and master degrees changed my perspective. I did a 6-month internship in a private bank in Geneva, and a bit of travelling. I realized that I had other aspirations and wanted to find a path more aligned with my values.

I went for a Master in Management and took some courses in business social responsibility as well as business ethics, which I appreciated very much. In addition, I started assisting a teacher whose field of research is focused on social and environmental responsibilities of corporations –  this definitely sparked my interest for CSR.

What is the topic of your thesis?

The exact question of my research paper is: “What are the effects of a law mandating CSR provisions on corporate investments in CSR – The case of India.”

Why did you choose to combine India with a sustainability-related topic?

For our 4th and last semester of the program, we are offered the possibility to go for a professional internship and write a Master thesis about it. My study derives its origins from a shared-internship position as a Junior Project Manager in the Academic Relations team of swissnex India in Bangalore on the one hand, and as an ambassador for the business school of the University of Lausanne (HEC) on the other. swissnex is a Swiss governmental platform that connects Switzerland & the most innovative hubs in the world in fields such as science, research, innovation and art. The organization has offices in Boston, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Bangalore and multiple outposts all over the globe.

My choice to apply for this position in India was mainly motivated by the opportunity to experience a multicultural and dynamic environment and discover India. In addition, the opportunity to serve as an intermediary in trying to create and foster collaborations between Swiss & Indian educational institutes appealed to me.

Before leaving Switzerland, I had a talk with my supervisor (which happened to be the teacher for whom I worked) and told her that instead of writing a research paper related to project management and my role at swissnex, I would be more interested in coupling India and CSR. This would indeed combine my interest for the topic with the opportunity to discover a country I was not familiar with.

I contacted swissnex about the matter a few weeks before leaving: they put me in contact with Clémentine Robert, Outreach Manager for oikos, who was also working part-time for swissnex India at that period. She gave me a few leads, and among them was the “Clause 135 of the Company Act, 2013”.

In a few words, India passed a law enforced in 2014 that obliges certain companies to invest 2% of their profits after tax in CSR activities. I did some research, and got quickly convinced that conducting research about this law could bring valuable insights. First of all, India is the first country in the world to mandate CSR spending. The number of discussions about the role of governments in regulating CSR is growing. The debate covering the widely spread notion of CSR’s voluntary nature versus its compulsory form is intensifying, and so far, researchers have lacked empirical evidence to make a case for mandated CSR. India is a great opportunity to be seized in examining the outcomes of a law enforcing CSR expenditures and in going beyond assumptions and speculations. My objective is to observe if consistent differences of investments’ behaviors in CSR activities emerged since the law was passed.

What are the obstacles and challenges you are facing?

It was a bit naive and pretentious to come to India and decide to write a Master thesis about a country I did not know anything before. Fortunately for me, I quickly realized it and was aware early on that the amount of pre-work necessary was abundant. My supervisor and I agreed to postpone my final deadline, so I would have more time to write the best paper possible. It allowed me to read a lot of material during the first 2 months (books, articles, media coverage) in order to better understand the history, culture and dimensions of the challenges faced by the country. I also took advantage of my extended deadline and used the opportunity presented by the extensive network of swissnex: I had the chance to talk to a few experts within the field who helped me a lot.

What are the benefits of such a thesis (short/medium/long term if possible)?

CSR in India has an organic evolution from within its own history, culture and political ideologies, setting it apart from the West. Studying a concept that has different meanings and origins in distinct parts of the world is challenging, but rewarding. It enlarges your understanding and knowledge of a topic and contextualizes it to a different culture. Or rather, the different culture contextualizes the topic. You become more critical as you get a broader perspective. The upstream work will also deepen your knowledge about a country, a culture or a continent as a whole. It will not only be restricted to the theme of your paper.

In general, what could you say to encourage students to focus their thesis on countries from other continents?

If you’re willing to put on the efforts required – especially at the beginning of your work – to better understand and comprehend the culture and history of the country/region/continent you’re writing on, go for it! The rewards will live up to your expectations.

More specifically, what could you say to encourage students to focus their thesis on sustainability in emerging countries (or at least taking them into consideration)?

We live in a very fast paced world. Countries, regions, continents: their increasingly heterogeneous social, political, environmental and economic characteristics make them fascinating objects of studies that require specific attention. Sustainability challenges are widely spread around the world: emerging countries are no exception and certainly present distinctive characteristics from developed nations. As for the topic of CSR, they do not receive as much attention as developed countries from scholars, which is a shame. I wanted to somehow contribute and be part of the change!