Efforts to understand the background to perceptions and manifestation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the developing world need to focus on establishing their link with the challenges of socio-economic governance and societal expectations and cultural traditions. This signifies a departure from a western centric understanding of CSR but also an over-focus on CSR as philanthropy. This study considers the Malawian tourism industry and finds that its colonial legacy, post-colonialism development thinking and the national education system explain the prevalence of a ‘CSR as philanthropy’ agenda. When these factors interact with challenges of socio-economic governance and societal expectations, however, the universality thesis that has often been associated with the theory and implementation CSR can be challenged. These findings therefore suggest a shift from the western centric CSR thinking to a CSR perspective that is strongly grounded in local values and norms and which meets the expectations of the global society. This indicates a way forward if CSR is to be adequately institutionalized in the developing world.