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November 8, 2001 Does global business alleviate or aggravate poverty?



by Julie Roy

Researchers on a far-reaching project on business ethics around the world got together recently compare notes on their progress.

For the past year or so, these research teams have looked closely at businesses, many of them foreign-owned multinationals, in Korea, Mexico, Ghana, Pakistan, south Africa, China, Uganda, Colombia and many other countries.

They talked with managers, suppliers, employees, ate with them in the cafeterias, even walked through the corridors of their Spartan dormitory, as David Krueger did when he went to China.

Krueger, who is from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, and Bocheng Ding, from Beijing Administrative College, looked at two Beijing companies’ ethics and business culture. One of the things they noticed was a big cultural gap between Chinese and Japanese workers. “Chinese is a country in transition,” Bocheng Ding said, by way of explanation.

In an interview, Professor Fred Bird said that the Chinese have been bringing in a form of free enterprise since the late 1970s, fostering remarkable economic development.

“There are still many state-owned enterprises, just as there are now many privately owned enterprises. In order to become a member of the World Trade Organization, China agreed to undertake further reforms [but] China is a huge society. Introducing economic reform is not a simple matter.”

It was the third such workshop held under the leadership of Dr. Bird, the project’s principal investigator. An ethicist and professor in Concordia’s Religion Department, Bird is passionate about comparative ethics and the issues around poverty, and he co-authored one of the first books on business ethics in Canada.

International collaboration

The idea for the project grew out of collaboration with a California-based business ethicist, Manny Velasquez, about creating a research group on the theme of organizational justice. Their theme: “global social responsibilities and the practices of international businesses in developing areas.”

The project, now two years old, brings together 26 scholars from a variety of disciplines and institutions as far away as South Africa and as close as McGill. Their work is funded by SSHRC, augmented by two complementary grants and financial contributions from other sources.

At the session here in mid-October, the researchers exchanged case study results and discussed the publication of their research. “We want a couple of publications on the subject, including two books. We hope they will be ready for the publishers next summer,” Bird said.

The researchers are not out to judge the business people, he added. “We are there to learn, from good and bad examples, how businesses can be more socially responsible. We hope to be able to identify common grounds for business ethics.”

Bird hopes this research will influence companies to think in terms of benefits to the employees, the companies that employ them, and the communities to which they belong.

Conclusions vary, but there are some success stories. In Mexico, a Canadian fishing company taught Mexicans how to use their equipment. This type of technology transfer empowers local workers and gives them more freedom.

Other in-progress case studies include the Body Shop community trade programs, British American Tobacco in Uganda, the soccer ball industry in Pakistan, maquiladoras in Mexico, and Otis Elevators in South Africa.

Not surprisingly, the owners of businesses are not always keen to have their ethics analyzed, he admitted.

“Collaboration varies greatly. It is usually very difficult to get them to cooperate, but so far, we have been quite successful.”