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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering - Global Issues

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Multinational Corporations with Neat Example

Multinational corporations conduct extensive business in more than one country.


Multinational corporations conduct extensive business in more than one country. In some cases, their operations are spread so thinly around the world that their official headquarters in any one home country, as distinct from the additional host countries in which they do business, is largely incidental and essentially a matter of historical circumstance or of selection based on tax advantages.


The benefits to U.S. companies of doing business in less economically developed countries are clear: inexpensive labour, availability of natural resources, favourable tax arrangements, and fresh markets for products. The benefits to the participants in developing countries are equally clear: new jobs, jobs with higher pay and greater challenge, transfer of advanced technology, and an array of social benefits from sharing wealth. Yet moral challenges arise, accompanying business and social complications. Who loses jobs at home when manufacturing is taken ―offshore‖? What does the host country lose in resources, control over its own trade, and political independence? And what are the moral responsibilities of corporations and individuals operating in less economically developed countries? Here we focus on the last question. Before doing so it will be helpful to introduce the concepts of technology transfer and appropriate technology.

Technology Transfer and Appropriate Technology:


Technology transfer is the process of moving technology to a novel setting and implementing it there. Technology includes both hardware (machines and installations) and technique (technical, organizational, and managerial skills and procedures). A novel setting is any situation containing at least one new variable relevant to the success or failure of a given technology.


The setting may be within a country where the technology is already used elsewhere, or a foreign country, which is our present interest. A variety of agents may conduct the transfer of echnology: governments, universities, private volunteer organizations (such as Engineers Without Borders), consulting firms, and multinational corporations. In most instances, the transfer of technology from a familiar to a new environment is a complex process. The technology being transferred may be one that originally evolved over a period of time and is now being introduced as a ready-made, completely new entity into a different setting. Discerning how the new setting differs from familiar contexts requires the imaginative and cautious vision of


―cross-cultural social experimenters.‖ The expression appropriate technology is widely used, but with a variety of meanings.


We use it in a generic sense to refer to identification, transfer, and implementation of the most suitable technology for a new set of conditions. Typically the conditions include social factors that go beyond routine economic and technical engineering constraints. Identifying them requires attention to an array of human values and needs that may influence how a technology affects the novel situation. Thus, in the words of Peter Heller, ―appropriateness may be scrutinized in terms of scale, technical and managerial skills, materials/energy (assured availability of supply at reasonable cost), physical environment (temperature, humidity, atmosphere, salinity, water availability, etc.), capital opportunity costs (to be commensurate with benefits), but especially human values (acceptability of the end-product by the intended users in light of their institutions, traditions, beliefs, taboos, and what they consider the good life).‖5 Examples include the introduction of agricultural machines and long-distance telephones.


A country with many poor farmers can make better immediate use of small, single- or two-wheeled tractors that can serve as motorized ploughs, to pull wagons or to drive pumps, than it can of huge diesel tractors that require collectivized or agribusiness-style farming. Conversely, the same country can benefit more from the latest in wireless communication technology to spread its telephone service to more people and over long distances than it can from old-fashioned transmission by wire. Appropriate technology also implies that the technology should contribute to and not detract from sustainable development of the host country by providing for careful stewardship of its natural resources and not degrading the environment beyond its carrying capacity. Nor should technology be used to replace large numbers of individually tended small fields by large plantations to grow crops for export, leaving most of the erstwhile farmers jobless and without a source of home grown food.


The word appropriate is vague until we answer the questions, appropriate to what, and in what way?6 Answering those questions immediately invokes values about human needs and environmental protection, as well as facts about situations, making it obvious that appropriate is a value-laden term. In this broader sense, the appropriate technology might sometimes be small-, intermediate-, or large-scale technology. Appropriate technology is a generic concept that applies to all attempts to emphasize wider social factors when transferring technologies. As such, it reinforces and amplifies our view of engineering as social experimentation. With these distinctions in mind, let us turn to a classic case study illustrating the complexities of engineering within multinational settings.

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