We Day: The corporate selling of progressive ethics and hope to youth

Actor and activist Martin Sheen speaking at We Day in Vancouver on Oct. 15. Photo: Rebecca Bollwitt/Flickr

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a powerful article by Delphine Rabet called Corporate Power in Global Governance. The paper argues that profit alone does not encompass the primary concern for corporate entities. Even more important is the consolidation of power. Rabet argues that when the quest for power is recognized as a central motivation, then the complex activities of multinational corporations can begin to make sense.

For instance, by 2001, "private flows of capital accounted for 87 per cent of the nearly US$296 billion transferred from richer to poorer countries whereas official development assistance comprised less than 13 per cent" (Rabet, p. 5). Why would an entity whose primary concern is profit be so inclined? Rabet explains that this kind of ‘generosity' is precisely what allows foreign firms to not only operate in developing countries (thus gaining access to their markets), but also to be granted certain legal powers (extending well beyond domestic laws) and provide access to labour, resources, and much more. This, in turn, secures a kind of hegemony that increases protection for investors (real and potential), thus further contributing to the roles of corporations as powerful political players in terms of global governance.

But in order for such drastic shifts to occur in global power dynamics, corporations must "develop the ideological justification for their political existence" (Rabet, p. 7). This is where corporate social responsibility (CSR) comes in. Rabet argues that "CSR contributes to the construction of an ideological system which consolidates the power of particular actors in the international realm" (p. 7). She suggests that rather than contributing to their stated philanthropic aims, CSR serves (and is intended to serve) the political purposes of corporations in that it confirms "the imperatives to protect the wealth generation processes" by highlighting the central place of free markets in efforts towards positive social change (p. 8, emphasis added).

Indeed, through CSR, corporations even attach themselves symbolically and otherwise to legitimate political actors, including states. This contributes to the hegemonic shift, leading to extremely unequal power dynamics which can, nonetheless, be experienced by parties on both sides of the relationship as voluntarily entered into. Even though developing nations are now increasingly dependent on a smaller and smaller group of very powerful entities in more and more ways, resistance seems to be limited to a soft hush and nearly everyone can sleep at night.

Having read this article, it was impossible to overlook -- and not be terrified by -- the immense corporate presence at a recent event I attended as a chaperone for a group of high school students.

October 15 was Vancouver's second We Day -- a massive event consisting of motivational speakers (including Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Rick Hansen, to name just a few) and musicians (including Hedley and The Barenaked Ladies). The arena was full of 18,000 teens from all over the province and beyond, excited to hear how each of them can "be the change they want to see," with two other events of equal size taking place in other Canadian cities.

The energy in the space was undeniable. And the intentions brought there by teachers, volunteers, presenters, and attendees were surely coming from the right place. So why did it feel so wrong?

Allow me to paint a picture, and then return to the issue of corporate social responsibility:

We Day took place at the "Roger's Centre" -- a huge sports arena bearing the name of a telecommunications company. Waiting in line outside, the kids danced to beats being pumped from the promotional tent of a radio station. Once through the doors, we walked past opportunities to win free stuff from "Nature's Gate" (a "green" food company) and buy bottled water (the proceeds of which we could be assured were contributing to a good cause). Once past the T-shirt sales, we made it in to our seats to be greeted by a (reusable) bag of free stuff including coupons for Telus, Nature's Gate, Me to We promotional material, a book, and a few other items. Then we sat down, watching Telus, CTV, and Omers Worldwide advertisements slide across the screens in front of us as we waited.

When the show finally began, I had some difficulty discerning the invited speakers from the corporate representatives. Spokespeople from companies such as The Vancouver Sun and The Keg Steakhouse and Bar spoke passionately to their captive young audience about the good their businesses are doing for the world's least privileged citizens.

Those companies that weren't represented in person aired slick, loud advertisements, introduced by Entertainment Tonight's Ben Mulroney: "Now let's watch this video about how Telus believes in the power of young people to change the world," met with ear-piercing applause. Aviva Insurance put forth a challenge to all 18,000 students to enter their contest, the prize of which will be a portion of $1,000,000 donated by the company for youth-led initiatives for social change (successfully making Aviva a topic of conversation on the bus ride home). During the lunch break Coke Zero, CTV, Molson Beer, Air Canada, and Disney advertisements encircled the entire arena.

The message was clear: It's up to us to change the world. And with the help of some powerful corporate entities, we can do it. The necessity for corporate handouts was made evident, despite the mantra, "It's not a handout... It's not charity... It's sustainability" being emphatically repeated by We Day representatives throughout the day. Importantly, these are not only "We Day" representatives, but representatives of "Me to We," a for-profit social enterprise which donates 50 per cent of its proceeds.

I understand the argument that perhaps we need to use "the master's tools" in order to get the job done. And indeed, this may be a legitimate approach at times. But my argument is that in this case, this is not getting the job done. In fact, the implications of this kind of initiative direct us away from the stated intentions of freedom, justice and equality.

Keeping the earlier discussion of the hegemony of corporate power in mind, I'd like to now contextualize this event. Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children 15 years ago and is the face of Me to We (along with his brother Marc), kicked We Day off by celebrating the accomplishments of Free the Children over the past 15 years: 650 schools have been built in developing countries, 10 villages have been supported through the Adopt-a-village program, over 1,000,000 hours of service have been clocked by Canadian "We School" participants in the last year alone. Women have been supported to find alternative sources of income, and clean water has been introduced to poor communities. His message was loud and clear: in the last 15 years, we have taken great strides towards levelling the world's inequities by contributing to these programs. The crowd was pumped.

But the truth is otherwise.

Staying within Kielburger's frame of reference of the last 15 years, Rabet has a slightly different observation, "it is really in the last 15 years that [philanthropic action] seems to have definitely become part of the global corporate landscape ... [CSR] has moved from a peripheral and controversial function of the firm ... toward a more central and widely accepted one by businesses themselves" (p. 8).

One might wonder why this is not something to be celebrated? If corporations are taking social responsibility seriously then we can trust that finally the rich are looking out for the poor. But again, looking within these past 15 years the means can certainly not be justified by the end, because the end is not looking good at all.

According to a study by the Asian Development Bank, the gap between rich and poor in many Asian countries has notably widened from the 1990s to the 2000s, as it has in the U.S. during the same time. This trend is linked to the fluidity of markets that coincides with economic booms in those areas. But that is not the only thing that has changed during this time; ecosystems have also become less accessible for citizens. While this may seem to be a separate area of concern entirely, there is indeed an important relationship among governance, poverty, and ecosystems. Earthtrends explains that increasingly limited political, legal, and material access to ecosystems contributes to the vulnerability of the world's poor. In this way, governance is directly linked to poverty in that even though ecosystems can effectively guard against the risk factors associated with poverty, the poor are steadily losing their access (while corporations have more).

For the rural poor, in particular, public participation -- not private philanthropy -- is critical for positive social change. So, while the World Bank celebrates the fact that the number of people living on $1 a day has decreased in this time frame (admitting the move has been uneven across the board), we would be well advised to take those findings with a grain of salt, as they do not account for inflation, nor do they take into account other measures of health and wellbeing, such as those identified by Earthtrends.

I returned home from Vancouver feeling fearful that the next generation is being duped into believing their power lies within their role as consumers not citizens. I admire the passion of the young people who attended the event, but I worry that their good intentions are being harnessed to support the hegemony of corporations, which directly corresponds to increasing global inequities and injustice. I look at the world in which they live, and lament the fact that this single message of the value of CSR is being delivered to them from every direction.

It is critical that alternatives to this single story are offered, in order to reclaim "hope" and "change" before they become two more catchphrases used to sell what freedoms still remain.

Janet Newbury is currently a PhD candidate, instructor, and researcher at the University of Victoria. She is also involved in a number of social justice-related initiatives in her home town of Powell River, British Columbia.

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