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Multinational Corporations

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Once considered dangerous and untrustworthy by governments, corporate enterprises are now the key players in the globalised economy, exerting substantial influence over governments and international organizations the world over. Their financial success seems endless; despite a widespread economic downturn in recent years, corporate profits are at an all time high, with the largest banks, oil, pharmaceutical and retail companies regularly reporting record turnovers. A significant proportion of these profits are reinvested not only in influencing politics and economics, but ensuring that people continue to consume their products.

Economic and Political Influence

Despite employing less than one percent of the global work force, 200 of the largest multinational corporations (MNCs) have sales equivalent to almost 30% of the world's GDP. Given their sheer economic might it is unsurprising that, in a period where economic growth is considered a panacea for development success, governments increasingly adopt pro-market policies and facilitate commercial activity. The result is a firmly established mutual-interdependence between corporations and governments, a phenomenon which is most evident in the United States which increasingly undermines a truly democratic representation of public interest.

While corporate-friendly policies of privatization, government downsizing and market liberalization continue to be propagated, large swathes of the public in both the North and South are suffering.  As a result, there is now a significant worldwide backlash against many of the principles and effects of economic globalization. Transnational corporations, in their relentless drive to maximize profits and bolster share prices, have been re-locating their production facilities to developing countries where tax, labour and environmental restrictions are negligible - creating large-scale unemployment in the industrialized countries.

Many argue that this is a necessary sacrifice in order to secure economic growth and opportunity in the developing world, but in many cases the result is merely a glut of labourers working in inhumane factory conditions for comparatively miniscule pay. These workers often give up their families and rural life to migrate en masse to overcrowded cities, inadvertently buying into an economic state of play which promotes unsustainable over-consumption in already wealthy countries.

At the same time, food security has sharply declined in many developing countries as large-scale agribusinesses out-compete local farmers, exporting cash crops and not growing food for those who need it locally. Consequently, communities are no longer able to grow the food they need to eat, must import food instead, and are therefore at the mercy of increasingly volatile international markets - a factor at the heart of the current food price crisis.

Influencing the public

Far from supplying public demand, corporations actively dictate cultural habits and create demand by influencing the public through a sophisticated and well-funded combination of research, marketing, advertising and media manipulation. The result is the subtle, but quite apparent, alignment of public and corporate interest. This cultural homogenization of society both nationally and globally is fertile ground for maximizing profit. Whilst levels of unnecessary and unsustainable consumption increase globally, corporate longevity is secured.

The sophistication and effectiveness of advertising and marketing methods is well understood. The ubiquity of the television and the increasing number of hours it is watched, especially by children, is particularly disturbing. In the US, watching TV is the third most time-consuming pastime after sleeping and working.

As domestic markets become saturated, or public opinion turns against a particular product, corporations - using the same aggressive marketing tactics - shift their attention to developing countries with devastating effect. Nestle is notorious for its aggressive marketing of infant milk formula in poor countries in the 1980s. Because of this practice, Nestle is still one of the most boycotted corporations in the world, and its infant formula remains controversial. In recent years, as public awareness of dire health consequences of smoking tobacco have come to light in industrialized nations, tobacco giants have also had to shift their focus to increasing demand in developing countries. The WHO has reported that 84% of an estimated 1.3 billion smokers live in developing and transitional economy countries. A 1994 WHO report estimated that the use of tobacco resulted in an annual global net loss of US $200 billion, a third of this loss being in developing countries which consequently hampers development efforts.

Corporate Greed or Public Good?

The battle for control of the democratic process is clearly being won by those with the greatest financial and economic leverage, and the phenomenon of market forces is becoming more entrenched in every aspect of public life. As many industrialized nations call for democracy to be spread abroad, the economic ideologies they have vested our future in are cancerous to these same democratic principles. True democracy can only be established if the global public is empowered to make decisions that favour cooperation and economic efficiency over competition and self interest.

After 30 years of economic globalization and the decadent rise of multinational corporations, almost half the world is still denied even the most basic of goods and services such as clean water, basic food, energy and medicine. Whilst small to medium-scale business is crucial in a thriving and interdependent society, the commercialisation of all resources and their distribution through a tiny number of oligarchic corporations will never supply the most essential resources to those who need them most. Small-scale, localised industry combined with international economic sharing is likely to play a significant role in creating a sustainable future.  This will only be possible, however, when corporate rights are scaled down to a level where corporations act in a limited and regulated capacity to serve the public's economic needs.