Do we really want multinational companies selling harmful lifestyles in the developing world?
Charles Kenny ("Get an MBA, Save the World," May/June 2012) makes two flawed assumptions in arguing that those who want to work in international development should get a business degree and join a multinational corporation. For starters, he does not give any reasons why an MBA in particular is important for development work. Development degrees, to be sure, don't offer the only path for solving the world's problems. But by Kenny's logic, a degree in chemistry, public health, or telecommunications engineering would be just as valuable as one in business.
I also have serious doubts about whether the Western consumer habits that many multinationals promote will be beneficial for developing countries in the long run. When conditions that are prevalent in the West, such as depression, diabetes, and obesity, reach countries like India, the multinational pharmaceutical companies that Kenny applauds will be right there to cash in -- regardless of soap and clean hands -- because the benefits of any corporate social responsibility initiative will pale in comparison with the profits that can be made from blockbuster drugs. One 2001 study, for example, found that the proportion of overweight people in India is increasing among urban residents and high-income rural residents (in other words, those with access to and money for Western products) and warned of "India's rapid increase in diet-related noncommunicable diseases and their costs."
Multinationals can do some good in the world. But in most circumstances they use their corporate power to build markets and sell lifestyles that come with huge hidden costs and have negatively affected health and well-being in developed countries. My Ph.D. in development studies has convinced me that qualitative research and a multifaceted approach to structural and social power dynamics are critical in achieving long-term positive change. A degree in development may not be the worst choice when it comes to honing the critical-thinking skills we'll sorely need to secure a sustainable global future.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Charles Kenny replies:
I'd agree with Tobias Denskus that there are a range of degrees that can be very useful for working in a developing country. In fact, professors in any discipline would surely hope to be teaching how to think critically, which is certainly a vital skill wherever one works in the world.
Again, Denskus is right that some multinational companies have done terrible things when putting profits before people -- I mention a few in the article. But the argument that we should condemn all multinationals for fostering unsustainable consumption in the developing world smacks a little of locking the barn door after we've stolen the horse. It is the rich of the Earth who consume the vast bulk of global output (though it is worth noting they are also living longer than any population in history, despite the evil wiles of multinational marketing). My guess would be that Denskus avails himself of soap, vaccines, telephones, and basic banking services. Surely he wouldn't want to stop multinationals from providing those same goods, with their incredible impact on health, earnings, and broader quality of life, to people living on a dollar or two a day?