Religious activists are more outspoken than ever about the problem of global poverty. So why do they so often and so energetically attack multinational corporations - the very organizations that are helping developing nations create jobs and grow through broader trade relations?
To a certain way of thinking in religious circles, large global corporations are often perceived to make excessive profits, exploit the poor, damage the environment and exercise undue influence on governments — especially struggling democratic nations in the developing world. In many ways, these companies are visible and easy targets for the anti-globalization crowd.
If the material living conditions of the poor are the main criterion, religious leaders should be arguing for more, rather than less, globalization. By that, we mean the inclusion of developing countries in the global economy and lower barriers to their participation in international trade. It would most probably also mean increased investment by multinational corporations in developing countries. In order to compete for these investments, developing countries need to provide an attractive climate by fighting corruption, establishing good banking and legal services, and ensuring basic education, health care and infrastructure. These improvements would increase transparency, accountability and benefit society in general.
But recent anti-business campaigns by religious activists would lead one to conclude that the cure for poverty involves attacking large companies. For example:
The very concepts of business and profit motive are often reason enough for religious leaders to condemn an activity as immoral and unethical, and criticisms of multinational corporations are just the same condemnations on a larger scale.
Even if the necessity of market economics is granted by some religious groups, few seem to appreciate how business activity and work are actually good for human beings. People spend most of their waking hours on the job and people of faith can learn to see their particular occupation as their vocation in life, no matter the type of work.
Does size matter? Not really. It is now well-established that multinationals tend to treat workers better than domestic employers in developing countries (see, for example, the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 8299 of May 2001 and numerous studies by the OECD, such as Trade, Employment and Labour Standards of 1996). China and India are two prominent examples of countries that have greatly reduced poverty as a result of opening up their economies. From the perspective of developing countries, it is much worse to be ignored by multinational corporations than to work for them.
A dose of realism may also be in order. For all the good things it brings, increased commerce will not result in a perfect society. There will always be some forms of inequality, leading to resentment and class divisions, while materialism and alienation can be commonplace in commercial societies - as they were in socialist planned economies. Moral education is vitally important, as there can be no good society without good human beings. But if religious leaders must address economic issues, a little more economic literacy is necessary.