A Matter of Degrees

Do we really want multinational companies selling harmful lifestyles in the developing world?

627460_120612_Letters_Kenny.jpg
627460_120612_Letters_Kenny.jpg

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.

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.

TOBIAS DENSKUS
Blogger, Aidnography.de
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?

Hillary Hurd is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.