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TIM COSTELLO, chief executive of World Vision Australia, writes of his “sincere hope” that the globalisation of today’s marketplaces will lead to improvements in human rights…

It is easy to be overwhelmed by despair when we witness scenes of violence against unarmed, peaceful protestors such as have been beamed out of Myanmar over the last week. 

Much has been made of the technological revolution that has meant that while a 1988 crackdown unfolded behind a curtain of secrecy, today’s events are leaking out of the country and into the hands of the world’s media. 

GLOBAL TRADE OPPORTUNITIES?: Tim Costello believes business around   the world has a part to play in improving human rights. PICTURE: athewma athewma ( 


“It is my belief, my sincere hope, that such trade power will inevitably lead to a greater focus by corporates across the globe on the wider behaviour of states, especially in the realm of human rights.”

Brave demonstrators have been joined by savvy bloggers and amateur cameramen, some just using mobile phones, to report on events as they unfold. 

Yet frustratingly the technological revolution hasn’t been enough to avert the violence. Indeed despite international criticism of the violence there is still yet to be a peaceful resolution. 

The United Nation’s envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, has held talks with Myanmar’s military leaders but as yet there is still no word of a breakthrough. 

So is this the extent of the impact of our global interconnectedness? Is it only able to highlight events as they unfold but not affect them? Is it only good for beaming images from across the globe of violence and injustice but it has no power to end them? 

Is the globalisation, which is much feared and much maligned, actually a paper tiger when it comes to impacting on global events as they unfold? Well, perhaps there is hope of an international ‘social dividend’ from globalisation. I certainly have hope there is and for me it is illustrated by the recent toy recalls out of China.

Recently US toy giant Mattel issued a recall of a series of toys manufactured in China because of concerns about their safety linked to fears of high lead levels in paints used on the toys. This followed food safety concerns, suggesting more widespread problems with Chinaís manufacturing standards. 

Not only was there rapid action in toy stores across the globe where shelves were emptied as part of the recall but authorities in China also treated the fears very seriously and made every effort to avoid a repeat or worse a consumer backlash or boycott. It was a salient illustration of the power of global trade and the power it can exercise over the actions of sovereign states. 

China’s response to this may be part of a broader trend – as China has gained power and prominence, it seems that it has also become more influenced by global perceptions. For example, it’s been under increasing international pressure over its relationship with Khartoum over Darfur. In response, China recently appointed a special envoy to Darfur. 

Now China is realising that such relationships can ruin its image and with the 2008 Olympics around the corner, it canít afford this. In a globalised world, if China’s clients prove too embarrassing it will act to restrain them. 

It is my belief, my sincere hope, that such trade power will inevitably lead to a greater focus by corporates across the globe on the wider behaviour of states, especially in the realm of human rights. 

I can imagine shareholders petitioning companies that have overseas exposure (be it through offshore operations or overseas supply chains) to find out what they are doing to pressure host governments to respect of human rights of their citizens. And businesses will engage in advocacy when it impacts on their core business. If something will have a negative impact, such as a consumer boycott, then swift action is assured. 

And while much as been made of the economic opportunities opened up to Australian companies through globalisation there is now a growing awareness of the reputation risk that companies are also exposing themselves to through their overseas expansion. 

Australian companies are deeply enmeshed in the international economy. Australian businesses have more than 4000 foreign affiliates spread throughout the globe. More than 25 per cent of the nation’s international trade is with low-income countries such as China, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

A recent report by Allen Consulting Group warned that poverty in the Asia Pacific region had the potential to directly threaten the future prosperity of corporate Australia. 

Interestingly, it found that simply by following ethical business standards and by developing low cost goods to market to the poor, Australian companies could make a profound impact on global poverty. 

This potential for Australian companies to be a force for good in combating poverty has obviously been a focus of World Visionís work here in Australia, particularly through the work of the Business for Poverty Relief Alliance involving leading companies such as ANZ, Visy, IAG and Grey Global. 

Yet perhaps such business practices and international shareholder activism can also prove to be a force for good on human rights. A force that is more powerful than the often-impotent international diplomatic circuit. 

It will be intriguing to see how international trade may actually unleash a ‘social good’ out of globalisation in this context. It will also be an acid test for many of Australia’s largest companies who already have major business interests in China.

Tim Costello is chief executive of World Vision Australia (

The name Myanmar has been used in this article in line with World Vision Australia policy.


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