The UN Goes to Market
Source Michael Eisenscher
Date 99/05/12/00:05

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

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 )

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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