Corporate Social Responsibility and Urban Development: Lessons from the South

Werna, Edmundo;
Keivani, Ramin;
Murphy, David;
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-230-52532-0, 245 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Mona Luxion

MA student,

Centre for Development and Emergency Practice,

School of Planning,

Oxford Brookes University,


Corporate Social Responsibility and Urban Development is a survey of recent literature and case studies of corporate-sponsored or partnership-based urban development. It grows out of an action-research project conducted by United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and the New Academy of Business in 2004. The book is aimed at professionals and scholars in the field of corporate social responsibility (CSR) who seek to learn more about urban development, at urban-development practitioners and researchers interested in the potential of CSR, and at readers who may not know much about either field but have an interest in both.

Transnational corporations and global governance seem to be the hot topics in current discourses about CSR and the global South. This book is not about those issues. Instead, Corporate Social Responsibility and Urban Development focuses on local business–community relationships and individual case studies, and is a literature review more than a policy paper or how-to manual. The quality of the book is uneven, but ultimately it is a useful reference for anyone with an interest in CSR or urban development, and a necessary contribution to a little-studied topic.

The first two chapters consist respectively of an introduction to corporate social responsibility and to urban development. These are followed by four chapters of case studies. The first three, written by Ramin Keivani, focus on the urban environment: city-wide interventions, the construction industry, and utilities. The fourth chapter, written by Edmundo Werna with Austine Ng’ombe, examines the issue of social development, with a particular emphasis on CSR and child welfare.

Each chapter begins with a discussion of the current literature on that aspect of urban development, which serves as an introduction for newcomers to the field and as a helpful review for more seasoned readers. There are weaknesses, however: Keivani has a tendency to veer into territory that, while interesting, does not strictly fall into the category of CSR and Southern urban development. His lengthy discussion of urban governance, for example, would benefit from a few words on what role corporations can play in rectifying the issues. Throughout the first few chapters, especially, many if not most of the examples come from the North – reflecting a bias in the CSR literature that, admittedly, the authors recognise. Still, I wanted to see more analysis of how these lessons might be applicable in a Southern context.

The authors define CSR as ‘the integration of wider economic, social, and environmental imperatives into the core strategies and activities of business entities’ (p. 12). Later on, they reference the concept of the ‘triple bottom line’: economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Despite this repeated concern, there is in fact little attention paid to economic issues in the text, especially the economic needs of beneficiary populations. This is consistent with the fact that corporate drivers of CSR are treated lightly throughout the book. While the introductory and concluding chapters (especially David Murphy’s contributions) make a strong case for the role of corporations in urban development, the intervening chapters devote much more space to the urban issues themselves than to the roles of corporations, often relegating the corporate part of CSR to a brief mention in each case study.

The conclusion, however, presents a useful summation of the various forms that CSR can take, and how each one can be most effectively applied to urban development. In fact, while there is little space anywhere in the book devoted to comparative analysis of the case studies mentioned, I found what analysis there was to be universally perceptive and well done – and often more interesting than the individual case studies had been. Unfortunately, by focusing so much on separate case studies, the authors have treated CSR as a mostly ad hoc phenomenon, emphasising the status quo and ignoring what could have been a well-placed platform for highlighting current trends and gaps in urban CSR.

I commend the authors for their contribution to a much-neglected field, but I think the book would have benefited from stricter editing: it suffers from a tendency to make unsubstantiated assertions and to present case studies that read like advertising copy. Because of its flaws, I can only give this volume a half-hearted endorsement. Nevertheless, it makes a valuable contribution to the literature, not least for starting a debate about the role of CSR in urban development. As the authors demonstrate in their introduction, there is a surprising dearth of research on CSR in the South, and an even greater lack of work on CSR in Southern cities. This is a regrettable deficit in an increasingly urban world, and I hope to see a growing body of work addressing this issue in the future.