The Monsanto Vietnam “Charm Offensive” Continues

Courtesy of Monsanto
Courtesy of Monsanto

Why are these children smiling?  Is it because they’re excited at the prospect of tasting the sweetness of Monsanto’s generosity through its most recent philanthropic activity – in cooperation with Room to Read?  Naw, it’s just a file photo, but you get the idea.  Vietnamese children, smiling faces, Monsanto’s latest charitable gesture in a country devastated by one of its signature products, Agent Orange.  Flashbacks to that classic 1974 dramatic thriller, The Parallax View.

This is also the company that is challenging the food sovereignty of Vietnam and many other countries with the introduction of highly controversial genetically modified crops.  To date, Monsanto, which had 2013 revenue of $15 billion, has invested a grand total of $220,000 (70k + 150k) in scholarships for students at the Vietnam National University of Agriculture (check it out my introduction to an article entitled The Audacity of Monsanto & the Short Memory of the Vietnam National University of Agriculture by Chuck Palazzo) and now this program.

Like I said in the aforementioned post, Monsanto execs must be smiling like a Cheshire cat at how easy it is to buy access and influence in a country that was once on the receiving end of one of its most infamous products and is now a living laboratory for genetically modified corn to be used for food and animal feed.

Not All Money is Created Equal

Nguyen Hong Loi and child born without eyes in Agent Orange children's ward at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Nguyen Hong Loi, 24, cares for a child born without eyes in the Agent Orange children’s ward of Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. About 500 of the 60,000 children delivered each year at the maternity hospital, Vietnam’s largest, are born with deformities, some because of Agent Orange, according to doctors. May 1, 2013. Photo by Drew Brown

This is what I described in that previous post about the scholarship program as the Trojan horse approach to improving the bottom line, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, according to one media reference.  I once advised a well-known student organization that they should be careful who they take money from in the form of corporate sponsorship.  One example was an organization that promotes the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco-related products.  The problem is most nonprofits never met a donor whose money they weren’t happy to take.  The moral of the story is choose carefully and ethically, when it comes to sponsorship.  Consider the source.

The Ultimate Expression of Corporate Social Responsibility

The ultimate corporate responsibility for companies like Monsanto, Dow and Diamond Shamrock would be to take responsibility – in partnership with their client back in the day, the US government – by creating a superfund, substantially more than the token 220k donated thus far, to assist with clean-up efforts and to help alleviate the suffering of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations of Vietnamese affected by dioxin poisoning.


“In Vietnam, P&G Woos Hearts, Minds, and Schools”

Aside from the title of this 5 July Bloomberg Businessweek article, an unfortunate play on what has been described as a “short-lived campaign by the United States military during the Vietnam War intended to win the popular support of the Vietnamese people,” I always have mixed feelings when I read about this type of project.  While it’s great that a new kindergarten was built with 80% of the funding coming from money raised by Procter & Gamble (P&G) employees, one of my fears is that political propaganda will be replaced by corporate propaganda.  The school has classrooms with slogans such as “Gillette Be Your Best,” “Pampers Golden Sleep,” and “Pantene Shine.”  What’s next?  Texbooks with P&G advertisements, daily announcements about P&G products, P&G-sponsored exams? 

Courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek.

As one of the analysts quoted in the article put it, “They have to do this propaganda-esque process to eventually have a consumer who wants to buy their products.  It’s a time-tested tool that companies use.”  Iwasn’t born yesterday so I understand that there are always strings attached when corporations make donations to the public or non-profit sector but I’m concerned about the influence of the private sector on the public sector and the rise of school-industry propaganda.  In a poor country like Vietnam it’s easy to buy influence.  While consumers are much more sophisticated now than they were five (5) or 10 years ago, it’s still a bit like taking candy from a baby.  I’d prefer that companies like P&G stay out of schools and promote their products the old-fashioned way.  My hope, unrealistic as it is in a situation that involves money and other goodies, is that the government will find a way to prevent companies, domestic or multinational, from taking the path of least resistance in promoting their products and services. 

This is my favorite part of the article:

That evening, in a driving rain, a few hundred villagers gather under a tent in the courtyard of the kindergarten to watch students and teachers perform dances and songs. P&G’s Henretta (Deb Henretta, group president of P&G’s Asia business) is among those invited onto a makeshift stage to talk about the company. As she holds up products from its Tide, Downy, Rejoice, Gillette, Safeguard, and Oral-B brands, Henretta asks the audience to clap if they recognize them. Meanwhile, some of the P&G volunteers mime washing their clothes or hair to make sure everyone understands their use.

The evening ends with everyone hopping through a row of parallel bamboo poles in a traditional dance, as P&G’s volunteers shout a refrain from a song, “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!”

I love the imagery and the symbolism. P&G and Uncle Ho working hand-in-hand!


P.S.:  If you know Asia, you know that “white is beautiful,” which is why P&G is “betting on the appetite in Vietnam for premium brands—such as its Olay skin whiteners…”  The irony is that a lot of white women spend hours in the sun and in tanning salons in order to have the skin color that a lot of Vietnamese women have naturally.