NEW YORK — Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador who is the public face of a group backed by Wal-Mart, went on the offensive Thursday, saying the company had revitalized the South’s economy and created entry-level jobs where there were none.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Young said money isn’t the motivation for his new role. “My price is to get Wal-Mart into Africa.”

Young, who was an aide to Martin Luther King Jr., has been named chairman of the national steering committee of Working Families for Wal-Mart. He has teamed with Wal-Mart through Atlanta-based Goodworks Inter­national, his consulting group that promotes commercial ventures, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean.

Young told interviewer Ed Gordon that he tried to bring Wal-Mart into Nigeria last year. A spokesman for Working Families for Wal-Mart was unable to provide specifics about the venture. Wal-Mart declined comment.

The world’s largest retailer has increased efforts to rebut opponents, including organized labor, that charge that it provides inadequate health insurance, pays low wages, drives out small business and discriminates against women.

Young said his alliance with Nike almost 10 years ago was a reason he agreed to team up with Wal-Mart. Nike, under fire for alleged labor abuses overseas, turned to Young to serve as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, touring Asian factories to report shortfalls.

“I actually went to China. I went to Vietnam. I went to Indonesia, and I studied the situation for myself. I wrote a lot of recommendations for Nike, all of which they adhered to.”

Young continued, “But $18 out of a $100 pair of shoes stayed in Asia; $25 went to Portland for the ideas, the design, the management and marketing; but the majority of the dollars in a $100 pair of shoes went to places like Shoe Town, Sports Authority, and created an industry that served our communities. I think Wal-Mart is the same way. There are problems when you have anybody that employs more than a million people. But the problems in Wal-Mart are nothing compared to the problems that these people had before Wal-Mart got there.”

Challenged on Wal-Mart’s antilabor practices and impact on small businesses, Young said: “The small business that everybody wants to protect is the same small business that has been overcharging black people and poor people all over the country.

This story first appeared in the March 3, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The entry-level jobs are always, for me, the most important,” he said. “And Wal-Mart provides entry-level jobs where there are no jobs, so I think Wal-Mart is ultimately a wealth generator.”

Backing up Gordon’s suggestion that Young believes the Bentonville, Ark., company “single-handedly” revitalized the South’s economy, Young said, “They brought in new wealth. They generated new job opportunities. They created opportunities for new suppliers.”

Asked if he would be a watchdog of Wal-Mart, Young said, “That’s the job of management. However, if there are complaints in the community, I will be glad to take them to management.”

As to Wal-Mart’s potential impact on Africa, he said: “I’m very sensitive about what we change in Africa, but making food and clean water available, making clothing available, making books and refrigerators available — I don’t have any problem with that.”

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