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What are Transnational Corporations?

Introduction – Definition and Scale of TNCs

Transnational Corporations are businesses that operate across international borders, though most of them have their headquarters in the USA, Europe and Japan.

There were about 7000 TNCs operating in 1970, but the charity Christian Aid estimates that this figure has now increased to about 63, 000 with about 690, 000 subsidiaries which operate in almost every sector of the economy and almost every country in the world today.

The key characteristics of TNCs are:

  • They seek competitive advantaged and maximization of profits by constantly searching for the cheapest and most efficient production locations across the world
  • They have geographical flexibility – they can shift resources and operations to any location in the world
  • A substantial part of their workforce is located in the developing world, but often employed indirectly through subsidiaries.
  • TNC assets are distributed worldwide rather than focused in one or two countries – for example, 17 of the top 100 TNCs have 90% of their assets in a different country from their head office.

TNCs are economically very wealthy and thus potentially more powerful than many of the world’s nation states.

According to Forbes magazine, in 2013, 37 of the 100 largest economies in the world were run by TNCs rather than countries. For example, BP is bigger than Finland, while Chevron is bigger than Ireland, and the combined annual revenue of the 200 largest TNCs exceeded those of the GDP of the 182 nation states containing 80% of the world’s population.

Critics remind us that GDP and annual revenue measure different things, so these figures may not show actual differences in economic power, but this aside, the relative economic power of TNCs has grown in relation to nation states over the last few decades, and today TNCs wield much more economic power than they did in the past.

Fobel et al (1980) note that from the 1970s TNCs set about investing significantly in the developing world because of high labour costs and high levels of industrial conflict in the West, which reduced profits.  The investment was greatly helped by developing countries, which actively sought TNC investment by setting up special areas called Export Processing Zones, or Free-Trade Zones, in which TNCs were encouraged to build factories for export to the West.

Free Trade Zones offered incentives such as infrastructure provided by the government (transport links), few planning controls on building, and low taxation. There are now over 5000 free or export processing zones in the world today which employ over 43 million workers, the majority of which are based in China’s territories.


Chapman et al (2016) – A Level Sociology Student Book Two [Fourth Edition] Collins.

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Arguments for Transnational Corporations in Development

Modernisation theory saw TNCs as playing a positive role in helping societies to develop. Rostow (1971) saw the injection of capital as essential in the pre-conditions for take-off phase of development, and he thought TNC’s were one of the institutions which could help kick start the process of development by investing money, technology, and expertise that the host country did not possess.

It is neoliberals, however, who have historically been the real champions of TNCs as the most efficient institutions to kick-start and carry through development in poor countries. In neoliberal theory, economic success is proof of competence – the fact that TNCs have been making goods efficiently at a profit on a global scale for decades, if not centuries, mean that these are the institutions best placed to kick start economic growth in poor countries.

Neoliberals argue that the governments of developing countries need to pull down all barriers in order to create a ‘business-friendly’ environment in order to encourage inward investment from Transnational Corporations.

In Neoliberal theory, corporations will help a country develop in the long term by providing jobs and training. The money earned will be spent on goods and services at home and abroad creating more money to invest and (limited) tax revenue for further development.

A summary of the supposed benefits TNCs can bring to developing countries

  • TNCs bring in investment in terms of money, resources, technology and expertise, creating jobs often where local companies are unable to do so.
  • TNCs need trained workers and this should raise the aspirations of local people and encourage improvements in education
  • Jobs provide opportunities for women promoting gender equality.
  • Encourage international trade which could increase economic growth, access to overseas markets
  • All of the above means that wealth generated from TNC investment and production should eventually trickle down to the rest of the population.
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The Role of the World Trade Organisation in International Development

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is the body through which governments and businesses (mainly TNCs) negotiate the rules of trade, and settle trade disputes once these rules have been established.

The concept of the WTO first began with the 1947 the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed by the Western powers to govern global trade and to reduce trade barriers between nations. In 1994, the WTO was set up to replace GATT, originally consisting of 126 members; it has since expanded to 164 member states currently.


The WTO now has trade rules in place covering not only goods but also services such as telecommunications, banking and investment, transport, education, health and the environment.

The WTO is committed to the concept of free trade, believing that unlimited competition in the free market results in efficient production, innovation, cheap prices and the fastest possible rates of economic growth. They see government interference in markets as stifling businesses and being harmful to economic growth. WTO trade agreements and trade rules have thus tended to focus on reducing government intervention, such as the reduction of tariffs, subsidies and restrictions on imports.

However, critics argue that the WTO has hidden goals, and that it is really interested in helping rich countries and TNCs maintain their economic dominance. Chang (2010) for example has criticized the World Trade Organisation, arguing that its trade rules are unfair, and biased against developing countries. The WTO pressurizes poor countries to open up their economies immediately to western corporations and banks by abandoning tariffs (taxes) on western imports. However, the developed countries are still allowed to impose quotas on the imports of manufactured goods from poor countries, in order to protect their manufacturing industries.

Along the same lines as Chang above, McKay argues that WTO trade rules have rigged the terms of global trade in favour of the West and consequently the WTO is a rich man’s club dominated by the neo-liberal philosophy of the developed, industrialised nations.

A second major criticism of the WTO is that it is notoriously undemocratic – decision making at the WTO is dominated by a small group of Western members, with representatives of developing countries being outnumbered by the representativeness of wealthier countries and TNCS, even though the majority of the world’s population lives in those poorer countries.  A consequence of this is that the WTO tends to see free-trade as more important than protecting workers rights or the environment.

This brief article from Forbes suggests various reasons why poor countries fail to get decent trade deals out of the WTO:

–They are seriously understaffed–at the extreme, some states have no permanent delegation in Geneva, or just one or two people who must also cover other international agencies in the city.

–Their experience of trade policy issues and multilateral negotiations is limited.

–Individually, and even collectively, few account for a significant share of any element in world trade.

Philippe Legrain (2002), former special advisor to the Director-General of the WTO has acknowledged four main criticisms of the WTO:

  • It does the bidding of TNCs
  • It undermines workers’ rights and environmental protection by encouraging a ‘race to the bottom’ between governments of developing countries competing for jobs and foreign investment.
  • It harms the poor
  • It destroys democracy by imposing its approach on the world secretly and without accountability. He argues that the WTO’s free trade rules have prioritised the interests of TNCs over democratic and human rights.

Further sources of criticisms


Chapman et al (2016) – A Level Sociology Student Book Two [Fourth Edition] Collins.

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Arguments Against Trade as a Strategy for Development

Andre Gunder Frank (1971) argues that the reason trade doesn’t work for poor countries is a legacy of colonialism – before independence, the colonizing power simply took these commodities. After independence, developing societies are often still over-dependent on exporting these primary commodities, which typically have a very low market-value, and rich countries are happy to keep things this way because this enables them to stay rich.

Dependency Theorists point to at least the following reasons why trade doesn’t help poor countries develop:

Poor countries are often dependent on low value, primary products for their export-earnings

Examples of countries over-dependent on low-value commodities include the Ivory Coast in West Africa, which to this day remains around 33% dependent on the export of raw cocoa beans or related products; Kenya (in East Africa) which is about 30% dependent on two primary products – tea and cut flowers, and Ethiopia (also in East Africa, although never a European colony) which is about 30% dependent on income from Coffee exports.


Malawi – dependent for most of its income on one primary agricultural product – Tobacco


According to Elwood (2004) three commodities account for 75% of total export in the poorest 50 countries, but because of the declining value of such commodities, the developing nations need to export more and more every year just to stay in the same place. One developing nation leader described it as ‘running up the downward escalator’. For example, in 1960, the earnings from 25 tons of natural rubber would buy four tractors, today it would only buy one.

Value is added to primary commodities by rich countries

Primary products such as cocoa, tea and coffee, sell for relatively low prices, so the farmers growing and selling such products make relatively little. However, once these products have been processed, branded and turned into the goods you see on the supermarket shelves, they can sell several times the original price. The problem (for developing countries) is that most of this processing and branding is done in the West. Thus, poor countries stay poor, and rich countries get rich.

With some commodities, there are several links in the chain of trade – take coffee for example – it goes from grower (in Ethiopia for example), to the local buyer, to the exporter, to the roaster (in Germany for example), to the supermarket and then to the consumer – 6 links in the chain. A bag of coffee might cost the consumer £2.50 in the supermarket, but the grower is lucky (very lucky) if they receive even 10% of this.

Two good video sources which illustrate how low-value exports don’t generate enough income for development are the movie „Black Gold which illustrates exploitation of coffee farmers in Ethiopia, and there is also Stacey Dooleys „Kids with Machetes which illustrates the low wages paid to cocoa farmers in The Ivory Coast.

The terms of trade are often biased against poor countries

Western nations impose tariffs (import taxes) or quotas (simply limits on how much a country can import) on goods from the developing world, which seriously impairs the ability of poor countries to make money from exports.

At the same time as restricting imports from poorer countries, Western governments subsidize some of their own industries. This results in over-production in some sectors, which can result in cheap, subsidized Western goods being dumped on poor countries, which undermines local industries in poorer countries. This happened in Haiti in the early 1990s, when cheap, subsidized American rice was dumped on the Haitian market, forcing local rice farmers out of business (because the American rice was cheaper.

This 2015 video from Al Jazeera focuses on this issue in Kenya – Kenyan cotton farmers are finding it very difficult to compete with subsidized American cotton farmers. You get to see the large scale U.S. operation which is subsidized by the American government, who exports their cotton: the US is the largest cotton exporter in the world. And you also get to see how American cotton production contrasts with the much smaller scale nature of Kenyan cotton production, cotton which they cannot export because they cannot compete with the subsidized US cotton.

More recently, Dependency Theorists have become concerned with the recent increase in bilateral ‘free trade’ agreements (FTAs). For example, in 2007, the EU singed FTAs with India which opened up Indian markets to the import of poultry and dairy products, despite the fact that 85% of demand is met locally by Indian farmers, and the introduction of big supermarket chains into the Indian marketplace.

Poor countries have been pressurized into exporting to clear their debts

The World Bank sees loans and debt as a ‘normal’ part of development, and poor countries are required to maintain repayments on (often low-interest) development loans to be eligible for more loans, thus keeping up repayments on loans is a crucial part of development for many countries.

Ellwood (2004) argues that this has resulted in the ‘social violence of the market’ – the constantly escalating pressure on farmers and workers in the developing world to produce more for less, which results in a problem called ‘immiserating trade’ – the more a developing country trades, the poorer it gets.


 Marxists conclude that the terms of world trade are far from equal. Developing countries are very much junior partners in global trading relationships and are consequently exploited by more powerful countries, TNCs and their agents.


Chapman et al (2016) – A Level Sociology Student Book Two [Fourth Edition] Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597495