Corporations polish up their humanitarian
[at the United Nations]
by Kenny Bruno
New Internationalist magazine,
A s a child growing up in New York City,
on Halloween I used to go around with a little orange box to collect
pennies for UNICEF. I have no idea how much those pennies helped
children around the world but, if nothing else, it was a brilliant
branding scheme. The sing-song 'trick or treat for UNICEF' still
rings in my ears every Halloween. At an impressionable age, my
mother told me I was a 'partner' with the United Nations.
Partnership is still in vogue at the UN,
but it has a different connotation. The preferred partner today
is an oil giant like Shell, a mining conglomerate like Rio Tinto
or a global food merchant like Nestlé. The idea is that
the UN, starved of funding by its Member States, cannot solve
problems on its own. Therefore it must turn to those with the
power to do so. And where does one find the largest concentration
of power, capital and technology? Transnational corporations (TNCs),
The flaw in this logic is that in confronting
myriad crises the UN seeks to enlist the very entities that are
at the root of creating many of them. The experts in the technologies
and systems that have caused the problems are assumed to be the
experts at finding solutions.
The Granddaddy of the corporate partnership
programmes is the Global Compact It was first proposed by Kofi
Annan to the elite World Economic Forum in Davos almost a year
before the global justice movement burst on the scene in Seattle.
The first taker from the business world was the International
Chamber of Commerce (ICC) - the world's largest corporate lobby
group. Its embrace should have raised deep suspicion.
Even before the 1992 Rio Earth Summit
the ICC was an effective voice in derailing international regulations
and promoting false, superficial solutions. In 1991, in the lead-up
to the Rio Summit, it published a book called From Ideas to Action
in which it expressed delight that many corporations had agreed
to sign up to the Rotterdam Charter for Sustainable Development,
a series of voluntary principles developed by the ICC. Most of
the book was devoted to 'case studies', which were in fact carefully
selected anecdotes about -purportedly sustainable projects. Fast
forward to 1999.
The Global Compact asks companies to sign
up to nine principles and submit case studies.
Stripped of its bells and whistles, it
has the same foundation as the ICC developed for its own members.
The principles sound good, but adherence to them is neither monitored
nor enforced. The case studies do not represent the overall record
of the company, and allow only good news.
More fundamentally, the philosophy of
the ICC - that open markets are the key to sustainable development
- was not to be challenged, and became the philosophy of the UN.
The qualified support shown initially
by some groups, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch
and Oxfam, has frayed badly and they have begun to distance themselves
from the Compact. Groups that openly criticize the Compact have
often been dismissed by UN staff as negative, confrontational
Ironically, these 'negative' groups are
among the staunchest supporters of the UN. But by 2002 the UN's
policies toward business were so supine that a major protest targeted
the corporate influence over the UN Summit on Sustainable Development
What caused it to embrace the corporate
world so tightly? In the late 1980s, at the height of a wave of
environmental awareness, some companies began to present themselves
as lovers of the environment. DuPont - which was responsible for
a large part of the ozone hole - featured breaching whales in
its ads. Chevron, one of the largest oil companies, touted its
support for wildlife reserves. Magazines were filled with expensively
photographed migrating birds, pristine rivers and adorable marine
mammals, accompanied by words communicating pious concern for
the environment - all brought to you by the biggest polluters
on the planet.
Greenwash' reached a kind of global apotheosis
at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The world's most damaging companies
signed up to the cause of sustainable development as long as it
didn't actually force any serious changes to their behaviour.
Since then their consistent message has been that they understand
the issues and will provide solutions - as long as they are left
alone to do so.
The world's governments endorsed the voluntary
approach. When the US insisted on UN reform in the 1990s, one
of the casualties was the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations,
which provided information and technical assistance to developing
countries in their dealings with corporations. Over the next few
years the specialized agencies working on issues closely related
to corporate impacts were given insufficient funds. By the late
1990s an impoverished UN Development Programme began to see itself
as a 'broker' between countries and private sector partners. The
Commission on Sustainable Development became a talk-shop.
For Kofi Annan and the heads of UN agencies
the hope was that by bringing in big business the UN would become
better funded and more effective. Yet, in choosing to enter a
partnership at a time when corporate power was at a zenith and
its own leverage light, the UN allowed the most powerful corporations
to 'bluewash' themselves - to spiff up their public image - without
getting much in return. Ten years after Rio, at the Johannesburg
Summit, a few haphazard, small-scale partnerships were touted
as the main accomplishment.
Meanwhile, in the realm of trade and investment,
business was on a major campaign for extreme liberalization via
the WTO and free trade agreements. Where corporate rights were
concerned, voluntary measures were not enough. Corporations want
the right to sue governments - but resist people's right to sue
them. The UN saw its role as a potential regulator demolished.
There was, however, the nasty problem
of a public backlash against corporate malfeasance. Here, business
saw the UN's potential as a foil. One of the earliest partnership
programmes, the UNDP's Global Sustainable Development Facility
(which never got off the ground), specifically recognized the
likelihood of 'image transfer' to its private sector partners.
When Kofi Annan launched the Global Compact in July 2000, corporate
leaders such as
Phil Knight of Nike made sure they were
photographed shaking the Secretary-General's hand in front of
the UN flag.
With strong personal support from Kofi
Annan, the Compact may or may not survive under the next Secretary-General.
But there is no doubt that the corporate partnership trend is
still in full swing. It influences every UN agency and conference.
On 13 October 2004 Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette told
business leaders, 'please rest assured that, when business looks
to play its part in making this world a better place, the United
Nations is open for business, and open to business'.
For those of us who collected pennies
for UNICEF, the UN still represents something more than the sum
of its parts. Alone among the global institutions it stands for
peace, human rights and sustainability above corporate rights.
The struggle continues. For example, the UN Sub-Commission for
the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights has negotiated a
text on Human Rights Norms for business. Most of the human rights
world supports the Norms. But the business world has lobbied against
them. Moreover, it has used the Global Compact as a rhetorical
weapon in its campaign, saying that the Norms would interfere
with voluntary cooperation. The Compact has thus become a pretext
for opposition to a potentially major advance in human rights.
UN officials say that avoiding a relationship
with big business is impossible. That is true. What is not clear
is why partnership should be the goal. Corporations sometimes
play a positive role in people's lives, at other times a negative
one. What is undeniable to most peoples' movements is that, at
present, corporations - and especially the giant TNCs - have too
much power. These movements long for a body that can monitor corporations
and hold them accountable. The UN is the only institution that
might, some day, play that role. To do so, it will have to break
Kenny Bruno is co-author with Jed Greer
of Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism and
with Josh Karliner of earthsummit.biz: The Corporate Takeover
of Sustainable Development. He is currently Campaigns Co-ordinator
at EarthRights international, which serves as Secretariat for
the Alliance for a Corporate-Free UN. www.earthrights.org
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