As a child growing up in New York City, on Hallowe’en 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 Hallowe’en. 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), of course.
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 élite 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 and unproductive.
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 in Johannesburg.
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 co-operation. 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 the partnership.