Are we in safe hands if multinationals are custodians of our rights?

Wed, Jul 18, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:An eyebrow must be raised when corporate giants decide they are promoting social justice, writes ANTHEA McTEIRNAN

GOOGLE WANTS to “Legalise Love” – and what’s not to love about that? All the search engine giant wants is for it to be legal to be lesbian, gay or bisexual in countries where it has an office.

Google’s Legalise Love campaign, launched last week, begins in Poland and Singapore. Both countries qualify to experience the corporation’s liberational largesse by virtue of the location of a few desks and a water cooler.

For once, it seems some of us are inside the tent urinating towards the exit. But wait, what’s this? A Google spokesperson said the campaign is not “political”.

“Legalise Love is a campaign to promote safer conditions for gay and lesbian people inside and outside the office in countries with anti-gay laws on the books,” the spokesperson said. It sure sounds mighty political.

Claire Lucas of US government development agency USAid told a recent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workplace summit in London: “We are working with some NGOs and some corporations on a global LGBT partnership. A partnership between corporations and the US government is very powerful.” An unnecessary qualifying statement, one might think.

So assorted mega-corporations – including Google – and the US government are the safe pairs of hands we can rely on to combat inequity and discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head? Why haven’t they already started in their own backyards? Where are they going to start? When? Who decides? What if the discriminators have oil?

The late historian RH Tawney got a rare outing in The Irish Times recently. “The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but to the fact that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong . . . Those who have the power to remove them have not the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power.”

Power – meet will.

Google pushes, the US government shoves and – kerching! – in countries with a Google office, LGBT people will find themselves free to love and free to be. Happy ending? Maybe.

Melinda Gates, billionaire spouse of Bill, with whom she shares a philanthropic foundation, is another demonstrating the “power and will” to get things done.

A keen supporter of women’s right to family planning, Gates was a mover behind last week’s London Family Planning summit, teaming up with the British government and the United Nations Population Fund to push for better access to contraception. Denying women in developing countries access to contraception is “a crime”, she says.

Melinda Gates has the power and the will to take this issue as far as she wants – or doesn’t want.

Harry Gaskell of Ernst Young told the global LGBT summit he supports government/corporate love-ins. “If you are trying to change something, governments can exert diplomatic power, NGOs can marshal facts and arguments, but corporations marshal economic power. That is something even the most passive of countries will listen to.” Too right they will. Money talks.

Let me put my cards on the table. Discriminating against anyone because of whom they love is obscene and has no place in this world. Women should have the right and the access to the means to control their fertility. They should have jurisdiction over their own bodies regardless of the jurisdiction, be it Minnesota or Malawi or Malahide.

So far, so inside the tent. Inside the tent this time. But what about next time? In his book Politics and Markets, political scientist Charles Lindblom argued that elite groups – and one might think that Google, Microsoft and the US government are in there somewhere – only bend to what the great unwashed want when they want to give it to us. More worryingly, he mooted, we only ask for what they want to give us. Any more challenging thoughts and demands are snuffed out before they get inside the tent.

Google is throwing its weight behind lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. The Gateses are full square behind access to contraception. Coca-Cola is teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony . . .

Lindblom grew more sceptical about benevolent market karma later in his life. He believed that while the markets functioned as our best option for creating wealth, they were by no means the best way of ensuring social and economic justice. Now, Google et al are concentrating on social justice. Economic justice is another matter entirely.

Should multinational corporations be relied on to be benevolent guardians of equal rights? Where do they get their mandate? Who generates their ideology? Can social and economic justice be separated?

Valid questions that need asking before our future becomes (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln) “Government for the people by (insert corporate logo here).”


Anthea McTeirnan is editor of The Ticket

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