Social Responsibility and Colombia

May 30, 2008

Amid the angry political debate swirling around the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, there is a real concern that people may lose sight of some of the positive contributions multinational companies are making to the region.

Just as critics would ask that criticisms of the Colombia FTA be taken seriously, it only makes sense that the positive side of the argument also be taken seriously. Colombia is making a great deal of progress, and there is clear evidence that some companies are making a significant effort to improve socioeconomic conditions.

For example:

  • IBM has donated 300 computers in Bogotà, Medellin, and other areas to support the development of 1,200 teachers and the education of 8,000 students. More than 40% of IBM's employees in Colombia volunteer in local NGOs and schools.
  • UPS Colombia works with the Foundation for Reviving Youth in the 21st Century (Fundaciòn Juvenil Revivir Siglo XXI) to assist children displaced from their homes or separated from their families by violence.
  • Chevron partners with several Colombian organizations to spur economic growth in La Guajira by increasing production and commercialization of Wayuu handicraft. Chevron donated thread and textile mills to the local artisans and offers workshops in design, commercialization, marketing, and sales. Artisans earned about $70,000 (150,000,000 pesos) in 2005.
  • Merck provides Mectizan tablets for the treatment of River Blindness. In the municipality of López de Micay, Cauca, treatment achieves 99% coverage. Additionally, Merck's Colombian subsidiary is a founding member of an initiative to promote transparency, integrity, and ethics.

Multinational companies make easy targets for criticism, but they are often more transparent and more engaged in stakeholder outreach than local companies. Often, their records compare favorably on any number of social metrics and indicators.

Critics should pursue the logic of their arguments – do they want to reduce poverty and enhance human, labor, and environmental standards?  Then they should welcome enhanced global trade and investment.

Otherwise they open themselves up to hypocrisy and the possibility that they may be pursuing some hidden agenda other than what they say they care about. 

In June, BCLC is hosting a roundtable discussion about the intersection of social responsibility and trade, with a specific focus on Colombia. We invite you to attend.

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