The debate about the role of multinational corporations propping up Burma's oppressive regime has been a long and fractious one. It's something that we in have discussed in our business ethics book, and which has been widely documented elsewhere. But with the country suddenly in the midst of a huge natural disaster that has already claimed some 22,000 lives, now is clearly the time to go beyond debate and for any companies still doing business there to start rolling up their sleeves.
Many commentators have claimed that Wal-Mart's major ethical turning point came when it launched a massive aid operation in the face of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. So is Cyclone Nargis going to be the catalyst for any of the hundreds of multinations doing business with Burma to demonstrate some concrete proof that their business links can bring positive social benefits to the Burmese people? After all, the common argument used by companies involved in Burma is that they can benefit ordinary people more by investing there than divesting. So this is a real opportunity to finally show the world that this whole argument is more than just a lame excuse for profiting from human rights abuses.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) latest list of companies doing business with Burma includes Caterpillar (USA), China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), Daewoo International Corporation (Korea), Siemens (Germany), Gas Authority of India (GAIL), GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Hyundai (Korea), and Total (France). If anyone is going to be having a Wal-Mart moment in response to Cyclone Nargis, surely it should be one of these. For once, a bit of "disaster capitalism" could actually do some good.