Multinational Monitor

SEP 1999
VOL 20 No. 9


AIDS Drugs for Africa: Grassroots Pressure Overcomes U.S. Industry's "Full Court Press" to Block South Africa's Affordable Medicine Program
by Robert Weissman

Pills, Prevention and Profits: The Case of Tamoxifen
by Amy Allina and
Cindy Pearson

The Ties That Bind: Industry Sponsorship of Patient Groups
by Lisa Hayes


The Politics of Drug Safety
an interview with
Dr. Sidney Wolfe


Behind the Lines

Moving Gently on East Timor

The Front
Too Big to Debar? - Kathie Lee Goes on Defense

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Notes
Big Business, Poor Peoples: The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World's Poor, by John Madeley - Reclaiming America, by Randy Shaw

Names In the News


Book Notes

Big Business, Poor Peoples: The Impact of
Transnational Corporations on the World's Poor

by John Madeley
London: Zed Books, 1999
206 pages; $19.95

Most treatments of global poverty fail to analyze the role of multinational corporations in perpetuating the plight of the world's poor. Journalist John Madeley has written a useful introductory critique of corporate involvement in developing nations, drawing on extensive travel experience and the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Madeley examines the impact of multinationals in various economic sectors: agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, energy and tourism. He explains how the multinationals exploit natural resources at the expense of local communities and, because much of the work is now done through local sub-contractors, with little accountability or financial risk to the global corporations themselves.

The size and reach of multinationals sets them apart from national firms. Pressures from international financial institutions, trade organizations and international financial markets severely inhibit Third World governments' ability to design their own development strategies that attempt to keep foreign companies at bay.

Madeley examines how tobacco and other corporate products aggravate poverty by diverting scarce money from food and other essentials. While tobacco companies hook governments on tax revenues, they put a costly strain on public health budgets. In developing nations, tobacco cultivation also disrupts village culture, placing an extra burden on women (who have to gather extra fire wood for curing), and degrading the land. Other multinational corporate products, including baby foods and food grown for export, cause similar kinds of disruption.

A valuable chapter explores the corporate colonization of the United Nations, first through the U.S.-led dismantling of the UN Center on Transnational Corporations, then by corporations gaining "special status" within development agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Corporations have used their growing influence in agencies like the FAO to make themselves the chief beneficiaries of aid programs, another way they fleece the poor.

Such is corporate power that it seems unlikely that a meaningful general code of conduct on multinationals could ever be negotiated, or implemented if it were negotiated - though such a code was high on the UN agenda in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Talk in the 1990s of international regulation is largely in terms of protecting multinationals' interests rather than those of developing countries - with agreements such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Madeley notes that despite the multinationals' power, they remain dependent on people, especially in rich countries, using their technologies and buying their products. He highlights numerous means of curbing corporate power, including specific product codes of conduct (e.g., for infant formula), and focuses briefly on examples where governments have stood up to multinationals on specific rules regarding their own resources, including Namibia's fishing policies and the Philippine government's mining policies. He also encourages governments to hire ex-corporate employees who know the tricks of the trade, and to enact national codes of conduct restricting multinationals from operating in more than one economic sector.

Ultimately, grassroots economic activities are a key factor in resisting multinational corporate encroachment. Farmers who produce milk to replace imported brands, consumers in richer countries who buy equitably produced merchandise, shareholder activism and the development of North-South NGO ties are all a necessary means of developing resistance to multinational corporate power.

Madeley is no blind optimist. Conditions are grim and getting worse. He finishes his balanced, but short treatment of this vast topic by suggesting that large multinationals are inherently incompatible with just and ecologically sound societies. Like so many analyses of corporate power, Big Business, Poor Peoples leaves readers knowing they have a lot of work ahead.

Reclaiming America
by Randy Shaw
Berkeley: U.of California Press, 1999
312 pages; $16.95

Randy Shaw takes many of the lessons from his previous book, The Activist's Handbook, and applies them in Reclaiming America to three progressive struggles of the 1990s - the campaign against sweatshop labor abuse, the campaign for tougher air pollution laws and efforts to redirect the federal budget from Pentagon bloat to social needs.

Shaw's main point is that in an age of corporate globalization, national and international campaigns must have a strong grassroots base to succeed against powerful corporate opponents.

Reclaiming America first discusses how a small group of labor rights activists built a campaign against Nike's use of sweatshop labor. Nike became a natural target not because it was the first corporation to increase profits by moving its plants overseas, but because of its vision of a world where sweatshops are seen as essential components to economic growth. Nike's heavy investment in promoting its image made it susceptible to a deft media campaign conducted by a loose coalition of human rights workers, student groups, religious groups and union activists. Along with domestic anti-sweatshop campaigns targeted at Jessica McClintock, Inc. and Guess jeans, anti-Nike activists crystallized opposition to socially irresponsible economic globalization around an easily understood core idea: a living wage for all workers.

By creating the infrastructure necessary for connecting locally focused activists and organizations to the national arena, the Sierra Club and the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) have also built a model for national activism that can be applied to other progressive campaigns. These two groups built field operations in local communities, which allowed them to mobilize citizens in order to win stronger new Clean Air Act amendments.

Not all campaigns in the 1990s have succeeded in mobilizing a national movement around issues affecting local groups. The effort to redirect federal spending from defense spending to social needs has suffered from the lack of a mobilized grassroots base. Shaw suggests that this is partly because many community-based organizations (CBOs) have devolved from organizing to service centers.

An astute chapter on the media looks at contemporary issues such as what it means to organize in the face of increased fragmentation of consumer media choices and problems caused when the progressive media is not connected to the movements they cover.

While acknowledging the value of e-mail as a relatively cheap organizing tool to build far-flung networks and provide minute-by-minute updates, Shaw cautions activists about relying too much on the internet.

Overall, Reclaiming America is a rigorous movement analysis for progressive activists and organizers across the United States.

- Charlie Cray


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