Coca colonization or global adaptation?

Starbucks and the other multinationals are contaminating the cultures of the world!” said the short message. “This is Coca Colonization, globalization and corporate imperialism! How can you travel just to go to another Starbucks?”

It is rare that I get comments and personal messages on my online photo album. And when I do it’s usually an inquiry regarding location, occasion or equipment. How could that simple photo I took of the Starbucks along Roxas Boulevard in Manila, Philippines, elicit such a strong response? At the time, I was merely having a coffee with my cousins, waiting for an iconic Manila Bay sunset.

I never realized how contentious an issue multinational corporations operating in developing countries was until I took up residence in Canada. During my childhood and early adolescence in the Philippines, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts and even KFC were just a part of life (Starbucks’ burst into the Philippine market after I emigrated.) I never gave a second thought to drinking Coke or Pepsi or having a Mars bar, Twix or Toblerone. Neither did I really consider the economic significance of wearing the plethora of branded garments whose name originates from the West. In my young mind, the last thing I would have thought of whenever I rode around the outskirts of Manila in my dad’s showroom mint Toyota Corona or my mom’s government issued, red plated AMC CJ5 was how those were blatant symbols of globalization.

Later on, however, I learned that free trade comes with a heavy price for most developing nations. Issues ranging from the tendency of multi-nationals to crowd out local industries to certain infamous cases of labour exploitation such as Nike’s use of sweatshops now occupy my world view.

Globalization is evil, right? Not always.

These problems are more a symptom of other issues than they are problems produced by globalization. If a nation’s local industry is so feeble that a foreign company can quickly convert a toehold to a stranglehold, then that nation’s government has failed to grant subsidies to promising local industrialists, nurture them through sponsorship and protect them by imposing tariffs on foreign goods. Besides, trade can open up opportunities by allowing locals to specialize in what they can do best.

As for lackadaisical labour laws: while I am not excusing users of inequitable sweatshop labour, I must point out that without labour to exploit, these places would not exist. It’s guaranteed that, even without Nike, some other brand name, perhaps even a homegrown one, will exploit such a cheap human resource. To suggest that the indigenous peoples of elsewhere would not take advantage of one another is really a backhanded compliment harking back to the days when the term “noble savage” was still fashionable. Once again, blame rests on the governments of these nations for not imposing stringent labour standards. Merely protesting the existence of inequitable exchange and calling for a cessation of all international trade does little to treat the greater diseases and root causes of global inequality and injustice. If anything, it is more likely that meaningful change will occur when using trade as a bargaining chip in exchange for the protection of civil liberties and human rights.

The argument that it’s ruining the exotic flavour makes no sense to anyone intimately familiar with the place, either. Anyone who knows the country’s history is aware that the Philippines was for a long time a Spanish colony, and then a part of the American commonwealth. English is widely spoken and the people are already quite familiar with western cultural practices. Add the thousands of years of trade relations with its Asian neighbours to already ethnically and culturally diverse regional groupings and what you get is a tremendously heterogeneous population with no issues assimilating international trends in fashion, cuisine and most other culturally significant practices.

I understand it isn’t fair to expect anyone without links to the place to know such things. But I must emphasize that the things I cited about the Philippines are neither novel nor unique. The truth is, we aren’t witnessing the “coca colonization” of the world, but rather the co-opting of items and practices from the west by foreign cultures for their own unique definitions and purposes. Suggesting that cultural hegemony is as easily achievable as setting up shop in foreign countries discredits the power and capacity of other populations to make choices and definitions for themselves.

Furthermore, it sure exposes the perspective of anyone making a statement as all-encompassing as “multinationals are contaminating the cultures of the world!” Given the great diversity of food, fashion and cultural choices we have in Canada, it is hypocritical at best to expect others not to have the same choices. Worse yet, to relegate to other populations strictly what is indigenous to them to maintain a sensory experience palatable to visitors is unforgivably selfish. It is the perspective of a tourist who seeks not only to have a fetishistic gaze sated by the new and unusual, but also a seeker of the exotic who wishes only to bring trinkets and images from a faraway land and perhaps to come back with stories of having met different people.

With the problems plaguing humanity at this point in time, perhaps less globalization is not the answer, but rather more. Not necessarily in terms of trade liberalization, but in each of our world views. Once we see each other as the same instead of different, once we start seeking what is panhuman instead of fetishizing what sets us apart, only then can we engage in meaningful global action. As Canadians we are fortunate to be uniquely primed in this regard by our rich cultural heritage.

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