Corporate Do-Gooders

Multinational corporations are often portrayed as heavies on the global stage - out to fatten profits anyway they can. But there's another side to this picture: partnerships between UN agencies committed to improving conditions in poor nations and companies that want to do business in those lands.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization, as well as many nonprofit relief groups, find that oil companies, high-tech firms, banks, or pharmaceutical businesses have both valuable expertise and a strong motive to lend a hand. It's estimated that private companies invested $252 billion in the developing world in 1997, up from $43.6 billion in 1990.

A genuine desire to do good on the part of business leaders may be one reason for this aid. But whether it's BP Amoco helping revive the fishing industry in war-ravaged Angola or Citibank and Chevron getting small entrepreneurs started in Kazakhstan, the companies hope to get a return on their good citizenship. Firms willing to promote social and economic betterment are likely to have sounder relationships with governments. Moreover, any added stability that results from the application of corporate know-how and resources improves the business environment.

Some companies, such as those equipping health services, don't hide their interest in cultivating potentially huge markets for their products by sowing the seeds of brand loyalty.

The spread of free-market capitalism has made this kind of global public-private partnership more possible. Leeriness of the aims of private businesses, once prevalent in the developing world, is lessening. Not that long ago, the UN itself would have shied away from collaboration with multinational corporations. Now it seeks them out. UNDP actively recruited Internet firms to support its NetAid project, one goal of which is to bring together countries that need assistance and companies that can help.

What should evolve is a higher code, and practice, of global citizenship -- as well as an important new constituency for the UN and its efforts to stimulate development.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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