Corporate Citizenship in the Tech World

The likes of Microsoft, Intel, and Oracle want to be more than just simple technology firms—they’re now aiming to be good corporate citizens that can bring about positive change in communities around the world.

By Zeid Nasser

For years, tech companies’ corporate social responsibility programs have largely consisted of offering software, hardware, and training to NGOs, educational institutions, and governmental entities. But this is now evolving into corporate citizenship programs, whereby principles of responsibility permeate all corporate levels, and companies begin to actively engage in local communities to push social and economic development.

Tech giants like Microsoft have been particularly quick to embrace the concept of corporate citizenship, which it believes can make a real difference to the lives of millions around the world. “IT is an equalizer. It equally provides access to all,” said Jeffery Avina, the regional director of Microsoft’s Citizenship and Community and Affairs Department. “We offer what we’re best at, which is IT, to let them do their work better. We are an enabler.”

Microsoft is now providing free software to politically and religiously neutral NGOs in an effort to help tackle serious issues facing communities across the region. “After the Arab Spring, we identified the areas of skilling and employment as important”, said Avina. Two years ago, Microsoft introduced an employment portal called Ta3mal. It has since served over 3 million users. In Iraq, for example, it has served over 4,000 employers who have posted more than 30,000 jobs.

Ta3mal also includes over 1,000 free online courses on varied topics, from basic skills to entrepreneurship. These courses, mostly in video format, were collected from various content creators and from corporations which had developed the courses for internal staff training. For example, Hilton has contributed its own internal training videos and materials to help Arab youth learn the skills necessary to succeed in the hospitality industry.

Microsoft is working to provide the Ta3mal employment and educational platform to 10 Arab countries, and has signed agreements with governments and organizations to do so. It may be customized differently in every market. “We have no problem if another country wants the platform, or underlying technology, but wants to call it something else or merge it into an already existing initiative. We need a local partnership or team to drive it,” Avina said.

The principal focus of Microsoft’s citizenship initiative is youth, entrepreneurship, and employment. It’s part of the Microsoft Youth Spark program, which is a commitment by the company over three years to improve the lives of 300 million youth globally. The program also offers free software, cloud services, and even internship opportunities to young startups.

I’ve been covering tech companies for two decades, so it’s refreshing to talk to a member of the corporate tech world whose job isn’t primarily to sell. “Nothing I offer comes with a price tag. My job is to give,” Avina said.

But it isn’t just Microsoft doing this. Over the past two years, Oracle has provided nearly $5 billion in resources to help prepare over 2 million students in 100 countries for university and a career.

Intel also has a foundation that provides huge grants and other forms of support to education organizations globally. One of its interesting citizenship programs is the “Intel Involved” volunteer program, whereby its employees donate hundreds of thousands of hours to education, environmental programs, and other local community needs. The Intel Foundation also gives to schools and community organizations cash donations of $10 for every hour employees volunteer.

There are those who view these citizenship donations and efforts with a little cynicism. Their thinking is that, surely, there must be underlying motives or agendas behind all this giving. After all, these are business corporations that are ultimately there to make a good return for their shareholders.

But Avina sees this as unfair. He said: “Most companies want something out of it, whether it’s visibility or recognition by society that they are doing something useful. They have an orientation and that is understandable, but a private sector champion can serve public good, under the leadership of national governments.”

He added that at 25 percent, our region has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, and it’s in nobody’s interest to allow this to rise any higher. “This is dangerous because you kill the spirit of someone so young and it can create political uncertainty; and that’s not good for anyone,” he said.