Only get an MBA if you are not interested in sustainable development

My initial thought when reading Charles Kenny’s latest Foreign Policy article, 'Get an MBA, Save the World', was that he was writing for a new ‘Development Onion’ and I was jealous because I hadn’t been invited to join. But then I had the strange feeling that he was at least half-serious that joining a large multinational corporation (with an MBA) could be your entry ticket into ‘development’, or, as he put it 'If you want to work in international development, go work for a big, bad multinational company'.

There are two flawed assumptions that I want to highlight in my reply: First, I have no idea why Charles Kenny put ‘MBA’ in the title and second, I have serious doubts that the lifestyle that many multinational corporations promote will be beneficial for developing countries; quite the opposite, to put it bluntly: Once obesity, diabetes and other 'Western' illnesses have reached countries like India for example, companies like GlaxoSmithKline or Unilever will be right there to cash in – regardless of soap and clean hands.

Why not get a proper education instead of an MBA?
But let’s start from the beginning: If I followed Charles Kenny’s logic, I should probably get a degree in telecommunication engineering, pharmacy, philanthropy management or chemistry. He doesn’t give a single reason why you should actually get an MBA – other than buying into some stereotypical corporate discourse. I know that many large development organisations like the ‘Harvard MBA – multinational corporation – helping the poor’ transformational stories but that doesn’t make them any better or more useful. Development degrees are not the single answer to solve the world’s development human resource problems (and that should be another post/debate), but there isn’t a single argument in his article other than making a catchy headline.

Selling an unsustainable and unhealthy lifestyle can hardly be described as 'development'
But the second point is the more serious one. First of all, most multinational corporation makes huge profits in the ‘developed world’, but also engage in philanthropical or subsidized services in the developing world. I’m glad for mobile banking in Kenya, but every time I sit on train travelling from London through Paris and onwards to any other European country, I am reminded of how mobile phone companies make their money: For example by charging high roaming fees the second you cross an all but invisible European border and ridiculous amounts of money for data packages should you ever want to check your Email abroad. And then I wonder why the same companies that have cemented their oligopolistic structures in Europe and don’t give a damn about customers all of the sudden should care about customers in developing countries. They do to some extent now, because there are emerging markets and they want a slice of that market.

I am also surprised that Charles Kenny only mentions one product and story of Unilever. All you need is a quick look at Wikipedia and you get an idea that there is more at stake than clean hands. There’s a multi-billion beauty and wellness market. And as ‘Western’ diet and lifestyle are entering countries like India, the company who owns the Slim Fast brand is probably looking forward to provide ‘information’ for many costumers, mainly women, who would like to have lighter skin and be skinny.

Charles Kenny’s take is on Big Pharma is also fairly imbalanced:
[F]or every drug that helps with male pattern baldness or gives a bump to middle-age sex lives, Big Pharma develops another one to kill off parasites living in tropical water or protect kids from pneumonia.
That’s not untrue, but it distorts the financial dimension behind it: Once ‘depression’/depression or any other of the multi-billion dollar conditions that require medication will enter the medical markets of transitional countries any sustainability or social responsibility initiative will pale in comparison to the big money that can be made. What multinational corporations are really good at is creating demand and customers (actually, that also happens in development...) without adopting a long-term let alone transformational approach.

Is your MBA critical-thinking-approved?
This is just an initial reply to put some of the claims, strategies and initiatives of multinational corporations into perspective when talking about getting an MBA to ‘work in development’. Multinationals can do a lot of good, but in most circumstances they use their corporate power to build markets, sell lifestyles and develop long-lasting relationships with a growing group of consumers. The soap, the vaccination or the discounted phone on the supermarket shelf come with huge hidden and detrimental cost regarding developing and producing them and a long tail of big profit margins in other areas as well as a multi-billion dollar promise of a bright-sided Western lifestyle that has proven to be unsustainable everywhere else. If nothing else, a good, old-fashioned development degree may at least expose you to the Foucaults, Deleuzes and Auges of the world as it did with me.

P.S.: You can also comment via @aidnography?


  1. "[F]or every drug that helps with male pattern baldness or gives a bump to middle-age sex lives, Big Pharma develops another one to kill off parasites living in tropical water or protect kids from pneumonia."

    Are you sure about this? Drugs for human parasites and pneumonia are not constantly developed. New pharmaceutical products are unaffordable for many years in developing countries until the patent has expired, and only if the manufacturer doesn't make some meaningless change to renew the patent, etc. Medication for parasites is so cheap that most pharmaceutical manufacturers are not interested in making them; the patents have expired. They are only interested in selling patented medications to developing countries if they can tap into aid money, which is why so much aid money has been ploughed into antiretroviral drugs for people with (and soon, people without) HIV.

  2. Hi Simon, you are referring to a quote from Charles Kenny's original article-this is his statement, not mine. I have also serious doubts about the linear relationship 'for every lifestyle drug there's a "serious" drug being developed'. But thanks so much for sharing your views from the 'frontline'. All the issues around patents probably deserve more intention when trying to figure out how much good Big Pharme really does and how much it really cost them

  3. I realize it's a quote but you start the next paragraph "That's not untrue...". I didn't think it fitted in well with some of the other things you've said so I thought it was just rhetorical, but potentially misleading to anyone who wanted to know what your view was!


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