Country is still mired in corruption, says White

Before she was a professor of business ethics at Saint Mary’s, Judith White was in Burma in 1997 talking about moral courage with embattled political leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Two decades later and a research paper on Suu Kyi’s political gallantry in the face of human rights violations and widespread corruption, White is back in Burma (now known as Myanmar) with SMC's School of Economics and Business Administration, and again she is concerned with the question of moral courage.

judith with lasallian brothersIn 2010, Myanmar held free elections, which dissolved the military junta that had been the dominant political party for much of the past 40 years. Since the election, Myanmar has begun to open its doors to global business—something that caught White’s attention and inspired her to return to Burma last September.

“Since 2011, the country has been opening up and I’ve been very interested in seeing what’s going to happen. Sanctions [imposed by the United States and European Union] have been lifted this last year, but the country remains deeply entrenched in cronyism and corruption—it’s part of the air that people breathe at this point. It’s that bad,” said White.

Myanmar is not the first emerging market to come out of a dictatorship or a strictly controlled economy, noted White, who mentioned the restrictive political systems that exist alongside capitalist markets of China and Vietnam. What intrigues White is: What types of business practices will emerge in Myanmar? The expanding market is, in a sense, a real-life laboratory for White’s specialization of business ethics.

“Western companies are starting to come into Burma and they’re facing a culture clash here. Because of the sanctions of the United Nations and European Union, corporations have to be socially responsible," said White. "The question is: who is going to influence whom? Are the companies going to be corrupted by the government and business community that’s already in place, or will it work in the opposite direction?”

The answer to that question will speak loudly to the corporate courage of businesses—both inside and outside of Myanmar—to carry out ethical practices.

classroom in burmaOver the course of White’s research trip she contacted numerous non-governmental organizations, corporate employees, think tanks and quasi-government officials. Among the subjects of conversation was the role of small- and medium-sized companies in Myanmar getting to international markets. White concluded that these companies are going to have to include corporate social responsibility into their business model.

“Small- and medium-sized organizations aren’t going to be able to operate in the corrupt way going forward,” said White. “They’re not going to be able to pay bribes every step of the way. When they look at their supply chain, they’re going to have to decide if they’re going to continue to pay people decent wages or if they’re going to exploit people by paying them a dollar a day.”

Given SEBA’s mission statement of “Think Globally. Lead Responsibly” many of the upcoming corporate decisions being made in Myanmar can be used as teaching examples. While in Myanmar, White met with Brother Ling John, who directs the Lasallian English and Computer Skills Center in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), to discuss potential Trans-Global Executive MBA (T-GEMBA) immersion trips, and Brother Mark Murphy of the De La Salle Institute and the Lasallian Christian Brothers Foundation in Napa, who was visiting the center in Yangon. As a result, a T-GEMBA immersion trip to Myanmar is in preliminary planning stages.  

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