Abstract

Friends of foes? The historical evolution of private actors in the provision of public goods
Pilar Acosta, Julio Zuluaga and Hanni Jalil

Businesses have historically engaged with society through multiple forms including paternalism, philanthropy and more recently corporate social responsibility and sustainability strategies. In the context of limited statehood (Börzel & Risse, 2010), the role of private actors has been particularly salient in the provision of public goods (Acosta & Perezts, 2017). However, the literature on corporate social responsibility has only recently started to investigate the political role of businesses (Scherer & Palazzo, 2011). 

In this article, we explore the historical intersection between state actors and private actors. Particularly we focus on how businesses engage (or not) with state actors and solve public issues in the context of limited statehood. Using archival data from a company engaged in sugar production we pursue a historical analysis detailing the main characteristics of private actors entering the sphere of public goods from 1930 to 1980 in Colombia. 

Our analysis of board minutes reveals a first era, until the 1940s, exhibiting the characteristics of traditional paternalism: a relationship based on authoritative parentalism, characterized by strong control and authoritarian care (Etchanchu & Djelic, 2018). During this period, the company provided public goods mainly for its employees and at times their families but usually seeking a private benefit. In the second era (1940s-1970s), the government progressively undertook several reforms leading to extend its reach in the areas of health and education. It is during this period, that philanthropy, understood as the use of private funds for public benefit and social change, appeared. The company increased its support to governmental entities such as hospitals and educational institutions, as well as multiple catholic organizations. The state appealed to the company for financial support to fulfill its mission, leading to joint efforts in the provision of public goods. The last period (1970s-1980s) suggests the state reinforced its role as a regulator, particularly regarding taxing and environmental management, while collaborating, to a lesser extent, in the provision of public goods in education and health. 

Overall, our study contributes to the literature on business involvement in societal issues. Our historically informed lens helps us uncover subtle mechanisms of confrontation-collaboration-coopetition between public and private actors in the context of limited statehood.