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CORPORATE FOCUS: UN Bows to MNCs

"It used to be that the United Nations was a thorn in the side of multinational corporations. No more."
 
 
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It used to be that the United Nations was a thorn in the side of multinational corporations. No more.Earlier this year, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for a partnership to be forged between the UN and global business. To defeat an emerging backlash against economic globalization, big corporations should work with the UN to devise ways to operate responsibly in the Third World, he said."Unless [human rights, labor rights and environmental] values are really seen to be taking hold, I fear we may find it increasingly difficult to make a persuasive case for the open global market," he told business leaders at the Davos forum in Switzerland in January.In February, Annan and the International Chamber of Commerce issued a joint statement in which they declared, "The United Nations and the business community should work jointly to expand economic opportunities, especially in countries which may face marginalization." The joint statement called on the UN and corporations to develop "partnerships" to advance this agenda.In March, the San Francisco-based Transnational Resource and Action Center (TRAC) revealed what those partnerships may look like in practice, as it released documents describing the UN Development Program's proposed Global Sustainable Development Facility (GSDF).The GSDF is a fuzzily defined program that seeks to promote corporate investment in sustainable projects in the world's poorest countries. The goal, according to UN officials, is to capture the "positives" of multinational corporations (technology, resources, expertise) and to help promote experimental, innovative, replicable projects that integrate marginalized populations into the global economy. Above all, UN officials hope these projects will create jobs, directly and by employing local parts and service suppliers.The plan has not taken final shape. Since TRAC released details of the plan, UN officials have said corporations will exert significantly less control over the GSDF than earlier documents indicated. UN officials say they hope to see the GSDF function as a kind of consulting firm to multinationals.What is clear is that the GSDF has picked shockingly poor corporate candidates for its partnership efforts. Most notable is Rio Tinto, a UK-based mining giant which has compiled a stunning record of violating the very human rights, labor and environmental principles the GSDF is designed to promote. In South Africa-occupied Namibia in the 1980s, for example, the company mined in contravention of numerous UN resolutions and amidst charges that it subjected black miners to horrible workplace and housing conditions. The company has been rocked by protests in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Australia, the United States and elsewhere.Other dubious corporate partners in the GSDF program include Dow Chemical, Citibank and Asea, Brown Boveri, a Swiss-Swedish company which is helping to build some of the most controversial large dams in the world.UN "partnership" with such corporate rogues is a stark reversal from a decade ago.In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Third World countries used the UN as a forum in which to call for a New International Economic Order, with economic power and technology transferred from multinationals to developing countries. The UN Center on Transnational Corporations (CTC) did important investigative work on the multinational corporate control over different industries, and advised Third World governments on how to negotiate with multinationals. And for more than 15 years, the CTC oversaw negotiations of a Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations -- an effort sabotaged and ultimately stifled by the United States on behalf of multinationals. Now, in another sign of the UN's transformation, the CTC has been merged into another UN agency, which tries to promote corporate investment in developing countries.UN officials are embracing partnerships with multinationals in part out of frustration with the considerable failure of development efforts over the past several decades and in part because they think they have no choice.But development failures can, to a considerable extent, be traced to too much corporate influence, not too little. Coke is available in poor rural areas in the Third World, but not clean water. Mines, such as those operated by Rio Tinto, despoil the land and water which is central to the livelihood of poor communities. Corporate-driven globalization (assisted by agents like the International Monetary Fund) has pushed countries to grow luxury crops for consumption abroad, not staples to feed the hungry at home.The Third World does not need UN agencies to facilitate further multinational corporate intrusions into developing countries. Business is quite able to identify investment opportunities without any assistance from the UN, which is much more likely through its GSDF to provide image-enhancement services to big corporations than it is to spark meaningful new job-creating investments.For the UN, the goal should not be partnership, but independence. Its crucial role should be to help counteract the immense power of multinationals in an increasingly globalized and corporatized economy -- one that is creating unparalleled material wealth but is systematically pushing billions of people into economic despair.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press; see www.corporatepredators.org)