“What gives you the right?” — Reflections on the moral legitimacy of English social work in light of Frontline-founder Boston Consulting Group’s support for the Saudi NEOM project
Death sentences and 50 year prison terms for Huwaitat tribespeople protesting the takeover of their land by the Saudi government to make way for its NEOM megacity project.
Connection to English social work? Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which co-founded the fast track qualifying programme Frontline, now rebranded as a ‘social work charity’. To this day BCG provides pro bono support to Frontline and has a representative on its board — all under the banner ‘corporate social responsibility’.
BCG has a number of contracts with the Saudi regime. Notably, NEOM, for which BCG has suggested employing NASA in the creation of an artificial moon for the city. It is one of the biggest winners in the veritable consultancy jamboree that has sprung up around the Saudi regime’s concerted efforts to rehabilitate its image as an innovative, forward-looking player on the global stage, including through ‘sportswashing’. It is reported that ‘100 of BCG’s consultants are working with the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). In the last five years PIF has been investing into targets such as Newcastle United in the UK’. BCG have also won a contract to support the Saudis’ bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
BCG likes to position itself as a socially responsible business. A truly socially responsible corporation would condemn the human rights violations of its paymasters and suspend all business with this despotic regime until the violations stopped and the country signed up to a binding declaration of human rights.
But it won’t. Because money. And power. And influence. These are more important to BCG than the lives of oppressed and marginalised peoples, despite the rhetoric of ‘social responsibility’ and ‘positive societal change’.
English social work’s link, via BCG-Frontline, to an authoritarian regime which brutally puts down any dissent is as antithetical to social work values as it is possible to get and should be protested at every turn.
Instead, we bury our heads in the sand and pretend we can still advocate with moral legitimacy from our vaunted principles of social justice and the liberation of peoples.
This, from an open letter from NGOs calling on companies involved in the NEOM project to condemn Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations says it all: “we deem BCG’s response to be inadequate, and the assertion that the company engages where it believes the work “can contribute to positive economic and societal transformation” is in sharp contradiction to the events on the ground.”
You can’t claim on the one hand to be contributing to positive societal transformation while ignoring horrific human rights violations in your own yard.
These are among many, many human rights violations by the Saudi regime, which also include the bombing of Yemeni civilians and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had opined that NEOM could bankrupt the Saudi state.
English social work is complicit via Frontline’s continued cosying up to Boston Consulting Group.
You might not agree, or think it’s a particular problem. I, however, believe strongly as a representative of the profession of social work in this country that it’s vitally important to register these concerns and to acknowledge these tensions in the hope of countering in some small way the corrosive effect of our collective indifference.
Social work is practical AND ethical and moral. We approach the people and communities we hope and aim to support with power differentials very often weighted heavily in our favour. We are often in the position of making decisions which require finely balanced ethical and moral judgements. These often result in less desirable personal outcomes for some of the people involved.
So, when people, understandably and legitimately, question the moral basis of social work decisions, what could our response be in light of our profession’s connection to human rights violations by an increasingly authoritarian Saudi regime, via the Frontline social work training programme and its global corporate founder and backer, BCG?