“Against that accusatory finger…

“Against that accusatory finger…

there are four more pointing back at you.”

— famous Chinese proverb (according to a someone much better-read than me)

What do you do with a Judas?

He opens so many doors to so many people – yet he lets so many die… or worse, participates in, precipitates their deaths, or the death of their dreams. There are many such examples in today’s world of billionaire philanthropists.

Here, I am mainly intrigued by a Pakistani entrepreneur who has had a major influence on our lives at a very basic level: through the introduction of cheap, food-grade packaging solutions. This company has enabled the agri-business sector (and possibly alleviated unemployment a tad bit) and instead of being another burden on the balance of trade, it has contributed positively to it via exports and the avoidance of imports. Yet, it has brought about a revolution in the sales reach of packaged foods so that you can now find biscuits, chips, milk, cream of more or less questionable quality in the khokha of the smallest hamlet of the country. The environmental degradation, health issues due to consumption of these “non-organic” food products esp. among children, and cultural costs due to the disappearance of so many cottage/home industries brought about by this sea-change are issues that the next generation will have to deal with. Did such intelligent people as those working on these projects not see what they were doing? Or they did not care? “Negative externalities” is the right term to use I believe – which sounds like the economics equivalent of collateral damage.

At another level, the same person has proven to be a visionary: establishing academic institutions that are some of the best in their fields in Pakistan. Well, at least as per the generally accepted standards in these matters. More penetrating analysis might provide alternative, possibly more useful, perspectives. What cannot be denied is that these institutions have been steadfast bastions for a population in need of knowledge, critical thinking and creativity.

So it’s all the more puzzling that he should continue to be associated with a global trans-national corporation that is either the biggest or second biggest food processing group in the world – and it keeps growing, gobbling up smaller companies, expanding its “portfolio”, cowing and cajoling governments into “liberalizing” legislation for fatter profit margins. I don’t doubt that its competitors follow the exact same practices – else, they could not possibly keep up! But it does mean that this company – and its major competitors – care only for the “bottom line”… and even there, only for the profits of its big shareholders and upper management. For many shareholders of this company have tried to hold its feet to the fire on multiple violations of international treaties and national laws (in Europe, Africa and Asia) and have had no more than partial success – such is the power of Manon. For a very balanced, painfully careful account, you can read Mike Muller’s Guardian article from a few years ago: Nestlé baby milk scandal has grown up but not gone away

By providing a public space for Nestlé to comment, this article succeeds in drawing out a revealing response from its chairperson, Mr Peter Brabeck (see comments below the article), which allowed a civil society campaigner to point out some crucial inconsistencies and omissions in Mr. Brabeck’s response.

And then here’s something that is a source of immense pride for me. I really admire the courage and steadfastness of Syed Aamir Raza, a Nestlé baby milk salesperson from Sialkot, who, when he realized that babies in his sales region were dying because of the work of his team “influencing” doctors to prescribe Nestlé’s formula, resigned and spoke out against these practices. Despite the incredible pressure that such a large company has brought to bear to shut him out, to shut him up, he persisted and now, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, the film, Tigers, dramatizing his struggle has been released. I love this guy – here’s a regular, un-pretentious guy, trying to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Struggling, wavering and ultimately choosing to take the road less traveled.

Do you see the incongruity of it all? A Pakistani guy, a young man from a nation reviled for the actions of its young men, from a group of countries considered “failed states”, “basket cases”, “corrupt to the core”, showing up the much bigger, “legalized” corruption of one of the largest companies in the world, based in the country that is the very symbol, in the mind of the public, of high idealism, of human rights (the UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva) and humanitarianism (via the ICRC and the IFRC)*.

Just so it’s clear, Nestlé has consistently violated the marketing codes related to food products for infants – all over the world.

cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies
cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies

In its home country, Switzerland, and its home continent, Europe, it has repeatedly faced criticism for its unethical actions, leading to multiple boycotts and even punitive judicial action in some Third World countries with spine. The World Health Organization estimates that breast-feeding could prevent 800,000 child deaths every year – yet Nestlé and its competitors continue to aggressively market their formula milk for infants, constantly breaking the rules.

So, coming back to the dilemma – what do we do with this man? Just accept that “it’s complicated” (as per social media) and get on with one’s life? I tend towards this conclusion – with one caveat: it’s important to understand the fuller/deeper/larger story and what it means in its context. A case in point: getting a handle on the paradoxes he embodies gives me a better understanding of the highly publicized case of sexual harassment of a student by a teacher who is a member of his clan – at one of the very institutions he helped establish. A case in which, despite the directives of the Federal Ombudsman that he be fired, the predatory relative was protected and the victim vilified. After all, what does one measly National Outreach Programme scholar matter when the deaths of thousands of babies leave one unruffled?

At this point, a friend said, but he could always claim that as a member of the BoG of the company, he can’t be expected to keep an eye on the day-to-day activities of Nestlé Pakistan. To which I have two answers: I’m sure he knows exactly where each and every paisa in the account books come from and also that when one goes into a joint venture with a company, one does one’s due diligence and if the fact of a global boycott campaign somehow escaped their notice, then it sort of makes one wonder if corporate “due diligence” is yet another example of Orwellian Newspeak. Milkpak became Nestlé Pakistan in the late eighties/early nineties, the Nestlé baby milk scandal broke in 1974 and, as noted above, has never really gone away. So.

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I asked a friend, an economist, to review this post and he came back with a comment that he says is standard political economy but which untangled so many knots for me: “He created a school so his class could hire cheap local labor and then there were some good things along the way for which he’s had sufficient political mileage. And he’s probably monetized that as well. I judge him neither for the “good” nor for the “bad” for they appear to me to be two sides of the same coin. It’s all good business and that’s how you do good business in a capitalist world. And then there are people […] who keeping nipping at their ankles […] And that’s quite nice.”

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The deeper, really difficult question for me is: how would I behave given the same power and privilege? Would I meet the same standards of farsightedness and honesty that I expect from the enlightened don of our business “community”?

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* Which opens a whole different can of worms – how to reconcile the co-existence of major UN and various international organisations that may be termed “pro-people” in Switzerland with its terrible record during WWII and the notorious banking secrecy laws – the laws that allowed Switzerland to pioneer the “we’ll keep your ill-gotten wealth safe for you” industry?

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