My friends are concerned about the immoral nature of some big companies that are commonly called “multinationals”. I am also one who wishes they would care a bit more about people’s perception of their business and conduct, but I am not surprised that they don’t. I share these thoughts in the effort to say why we probably should not be surprised when we are not taken care of and treated with what some would see as a moral attitude.
Whether or not this is true, is an issue to work around but let me first say the argument about multinational companies funded by wealthy investors is not new nor is it one that is as novel as some in social media circles would love to believe it is. One does however need to concede that the concern and the energy directed at these massive companies is in a way justified since the main impact is felt in the sector dealing with people’s health. It is thus from this perspective that the “multinationals” title has become synonymous with drug companies like Aspen and GlaxoSmithKline, among others.
Worth noting is the fact that strides have been made in getting these big companies to cut down prices and apply practices which some may consider as humane.
Before getting caught up in the argument about the merits of the attitude towards these companies, it would be good to critique them after defining what they actually are. Investopedia defines a multinational “Corporation as one that has its facilities and other assets in at least one country other than its home country”. This is probably a geographical definition that is devoid of the feelings of those who appreciate them or not. It would thus not necessarily point to the perceived “immoral” nature. We may however contend with this being an imperial corporation, which depending on the type of business and/or the kind of practices it’s engaged in, would be deemed moral or immoral.
A few weeks earlier (last year in fact), I woke up to an article about the British pharmaceutical giant’s (GlaxoSmithKline) decision to “amend” some of the ways it has used in ensuring marketing success. The case in point here is through endorsements from medical doctors from around the world, which essentially plays on the emotional or trust relationship that clients usually have with doctors. Before going deeper into this, one may wonder if this is not expected of corporations or a corporation intended for profit.
As defined earlier, these corporations exist for the sole purpose of making money through their Value Proposition for those they present or offer their products to. This may actually be an understatement for some of the investors in these companies who do not really care what the company is doing or in the process of creating which would save however many lives, as long as the executive team of the company brings results; money. And then we accept that a number of them are in it for the money. But we may also want to ask, whether an investor who puts his/her money in a pharmaceutical sector project that he/she believes would have measurable returns is inherently immoral? Another way to phrase this question is to ask whether capitalists who operate in the health, drugs and pharmaceuticals are bad people? One part of my answer would be, no. The other part shall unravel.
I would like to point to the view presented back then by the likes of Adam Smith who alluded to the fact that, it is seldom for benevolent reasons that people engage in enterprise. It is thus not for the consumer’s hunger that the baker runs their bakery but mainly because through the consumer’s hunger, he/she will make money. The financial gain and social contribution does not have to be mutually exclusive, but I posit that the former is usually the primary incentive for setting up any kind or enterprise. To ensure that people are not just exploited, there is the duty on regulatory bodies to use reasonable means to regulate the prices of these products. The Indian National Parmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has made a number of strides in this regard, where they see the prices of essential cardiovascular drugs, antibiotics, anti-hypertension and cancer drugs falling by between 10-50% as can be seen in the article: Price of key drugs to be cut by up to half in Business Standard (17.06.2013). It is indeed possible to, through regulation lower the prices of these essential drugs, although it is much easier if the drugs are domestically produced instead of patents that a number of developing nations have to deal with before producing any drug when the Intellectual Property is that of a company in a foreign nation.
The other side of the equation is what the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation(Necsa) has embarked on in working towards the 2016 opening of the Ketlaphela project which aims to produce Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients through Necsa’s Pelchem subsidiary.
Considering how many lives have been lost to HIV/Aids, it makes sense that those whose relatives and others whom they care about, would have a negative attitude to these companies who can/could help but are not. This obviously has to do with the price and accessibility of these drugs, especially to the poor which has thus been a serious point of contention in how the companies that produce the drugs are viewed by those who need them the most.
This article is not about to cover the “Aids denialism” debate which entails arguments about how lost lives could have been saved if people had access to these lifesaving drugs. A relevant question is whether our concerns and energies as countries bearing the brunt of overpriced drugs could be directed to finding ways to competitively produce? This is in addition to finding fault in the cost that these companies put on the drugs. My argument here also has to do with the fallacy of expecting a moral stance on the part of these big companies.
Why the “hate” of these global corporations is misdirected energy
In appreciating the energy around this issue, one is tasked with the question of whether it could be directed in an alternative or additional direction that would yield results. Included in the arguments presented as justification for the dislike of these corporations are the following; the investors’ accumulated wealth at the expense of Africans, they capitalise on the unfortunate realities of wretched of the earth. And then there are the conspiracy theorists among us who believe all of this has to do with the New World Order. I must say the latter is my least favourite topic to engage on, not because it is not true, but because it is seldom factual or of the facts presented the causality is not always clear.
Let us for now agree that the wealth that the investors accumulated, was in an unjust way. My immediate stance in this case is to first say, the world we live in has not shown itself to be a just one, both for the religious and those who are not. History presents us with a number of cases where slavery has not only been the norm but a practice that has been included in laws that have governed people’s interactions. The underprivileged and the marginalized have had to fight their way to freedom. With this said, I am not in any way justifying some of the atrocities that have been committed by (wo)man on his/her fellow (wo)man. I find it important to at least appreciate the role that privilege and its preservation thereof has played in how human beings have interacted.
Man has not only been acquiescent in this regard. We have seen a number of institutions that are aimed at creating a more humane and just world, these have been created by man, which points to those moral and humanitarian voices that some believe will/should end the sad realities of many.
Rising above slavery and the oppressed mental make up
It may be clear that I am not a believer in the idea of an inherently moral world which man is destructing because of greed. This is mainly because, we learn of a number of countries that had to work real hard to rise above their immediate conditions and give meaning to their lives and their national status after slavery. An important aspect of this rise in countries like Japan, China, Israel, Korea, India, Brazil and others, has not only been on a moral basis that sees former colonizers engaging in some kind of retributive measures. Although retribution has to do with justice and “undoing” the wrongs of the past, the route has predominantly been achieved through force.
In the face of how hard it is, there is what I would posit as the ultimate redemption song of the African child in the 21st century; we might as well give it a hash tag as you will be seeing it more often with a number of thoughts under the Bush Dialogues banner will point to this. The hash tag shall be #MathsScienceEngineerignTechnology. This is directly linked to the fact that anything that looks like progress in our time has to thank the advances made in Science, Maths, Technology and Engineering. From one of the greatest scientific leaps in medicine that came with the discovery of penicillin, earlier strides in automobile technology, space technology and engineering to one of the latest in Haptic Technology, commonly referred to as “touch screen”.
In keeping with the context of this article, it is worth noting what some of these countries that were also formerly colonized have been able to achieve in engineering and medicine. The following example points to the power of economic might, in light of the great Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking registering his intention not to attend a conference in Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestinians. One of the officials of the electronics and computer technology company that Hawking benefits from was not too subtle in commenting on Hawking’s intention. He pointed to the fact that Hawking may want to first appreciate the contribution of Hewlett Packard (HP) to his speech. And so similar comments are made, either covertly or otherwise when those who benefit from the advances made by the other, start criticizing. In acknowledging these facts one then has to consider the stance that some of our brothers and sisters mentioned earlier would like to consider.
Let’s create multinationals instead of envying their “power”
If I may, I would propose that it will be on the basis of competition (which is often stiff) that Africa will be reckoned with on the international stage of a globalized world. It will not be on the basis of criticizing GlaxoSmithKline, Adcock Ingram, Merck, Aspen, Toyota or Huawei’s treatment of its African employees that we will gain a voice. The strides required in Science and Technology on the part of African countries are massive and probably ones we can’t avoid if we wish to “play with the big boys”.
Worth reading up on is the difference between the very political stance of China’s Mao Zedong versus the very pragmatic, pro international trade, pro scientific advancement (by learning from those who have advanced and domestic hard work) view of Deng Xiaoping.
Kenya’s strides in mobile and Information Technology is worth commending with major strides made by companies like Safaricom.
South Africa is currently up in arms due to the tolling of Gauteng roads, which in addition to being about corruption was also about having to buy foreign technology to build our roads in preparation for the Fifa Soccer World Cup tournament. What remains is that the Austrian companies that built the roads, used their technology to build for us. We had to pay, and we paid. The South African will pay extra for using the roads, as we do with the medicine, cars and other advances that come to us from the Multinationals of European and Western, Middle Eastern and increasingly Asian origin.
In the Cuban revolution, one of the first things the commander Ernesto Che Guevara would ask recruits was whether they could read and write, teach them maths and medical procedures that would be necessary in war. The command was clear on the fact that if the army was going to present an alternative to the people of Cuba, it would be on the basis of the ability to make shoes, bread and build for those who need these. This remains the duty of anyone who sees themselves as the government. It remains the duty of the Citizen to equip themselves and compete on the global stage. Maybe this is our sole duty.
Khomotso Ntuli is facilitator of Bush Dialogues and can be followed on twitter under the handle @CitizenInDeBush.