Foreign direct investment - companies setting up operations in another country - surged by 40 per cent in 1998 to hit a record of $644bn (pounds 402bn), according to the UN's Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad).
It said investment flows were expected to hit another record this year. But Unctad also said it was concerned about growing disquiet among Third World countries about the impact on local workforces and the environment. "A failure by transnational corporations to be constructive ... could exacerbate a backlash already seen against liberalisation policies in some quarters," it said in its World Investment Report.
It contrasted the multinationals' active lobbying for local governments to respect international laws protecting their foreign investments with their "aversion to binding international legal standards regarding corporate operations".
Lynn Mytelka, Unctad investment director, said: "Transnational corporations have to be told that they have to be responsible corporate citizens and increase their social responsibility. You have to balance rights and responsibilities." But she said it was up to the host countries to toughen up legislation. "If you don't have traffic lights, people will think they can come in and ride everywhere - even on the sidewalk," she said.
Unctad's concerns included the failure of transnationals to invest in hi-tech facilities, the focus on non-tradable sectors such as financials which did not benefit the host country's current account, and the export of polluting industries to the Third World.
Christian Aid, the charity, said the report showed that "premature" liberalisation could harm the economies of the host countries.