Corporate Responsibility in a Developing Country Context
Article by Wayne Visser
In this article, I want to explode a few myths about corporate responsibility in developing countries. Most of these myths exist as a result of the feeding frenzy that inevitably occurs every time the media has hunted down and sunk its teeth into one or other juicy story of corporate exploitation. The myths are also sustained, however, by whole legions of largely well-intentioned people in developed countries who have vested interests in promoting their particular brand of the truth about corporate responsibility.
Myth 1: Economic growth is not good
Over the past decade or more, there has been a growing backlash against the economic expansionist agenda of many developed countries and multinational corporations. And rightly so: Blind pursuit of GDP growth or market growth often fails to take into account many of its negative social and environmental impacts, as alternative indicators of progress, like the United Nations Human Development Index, the Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and the Environmental Sustainability Index, have all amply demonstrated.
But it is a mistake to transpose this “growth is not good” argument into a developing country context. What the ISEW showed, in fact, was that GDP growth and quality of life in developed countries like the USA and UK moved in parallel until around 1970, when they began to diverge, with quality of life declining despite continued economic growth. Most developing countries have yet to reach that point of divergence. Economic growth and the expansion of business activities is still one of the most effective ways to achieve improved social development and environmental sustainability.
Myth 2: Multinationals are the biggest sinners
In today’s fishbowl world, when multinationals step out of line, they get slammed in the worldwide media. Typically, their reputations suffer collateral damage and they find themselves being targeted by consumer boycotts and liability suits. This is both appropriate and necessary as a counterbalancing force in today’s supra-territorial society, given the overwhelming size and power of global corporations and the still relatively poor institutional frameworks of regulation and governance to ensure proper accountability.
But on balance, these sensational cases are the exception, rather than the rule. On the ground in developing countries, multinationals are generally powerful forces for good, through their investment in local economies, creation of jobs, upgrading of infrastructure, provision of basic services and involvement in community development and environmental conservation. The cumulative social and environmental impacts of smaller companies, which operate below the radar of the media and out of reach of the arm of the law, are typically far larger than that of the high profile multinationals.
Myth 3: Multinationals are the biggest saviours
While multinationals are typically not the worst offenders in developing countries, neither do they have as much influence over national development as many critics seem to assume. Development is a complex phenomenon, which fifty years of multilateral frustration has proved beyond question. Adequate systems of governance and economic stability are probably two of the most critical enablers, a fact that countries in Africa have finally realised with the launch of the African Union and …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (2003) Corporate Responsibility in a Developing Country Context. Ethical Corporation, Issue 20, August.