Ending poverty and winning human rights can't be left to voluntary
initiatives of corporations
Today the prime minister hosts the Business Call to Action in support
of the fight against global poverty. The event will showcase a range
of new corporate products and services supposedly designed to help
achieve the goals agreed by the UN eight years ago.
For an event aimed at convincing the public that multinational corporations
have a positive contribution to make, the line-up is likely to raise
a few eyebrows. UK mining giant Anglo American, one of the first to
come on board, has been widely criticised for profiting from human
rights abuses against local communities in the developing world.
Fellow participant Wal-Mart, savagely opposed to trade unions, has
built its global empire on relentless cutting of costs in retail stores
and supply chains, including ever-lower wages for factory workers
in China and Bangladesh. This downwards pressure on earnings prevents
people from working their way out of poverty, in complete contrast
to the stated aims of Brown's initiative.
Other companies are the subject of similar criticisms. Coca-Cola has
long been the target of legal action in India for taking communal
water resources from poor farmers, and for its pollution of agricultural
land. Bechtel attained notoriety over the failed privatisation of
water in the Bolivian town of Cochabamba. Other participating companies
have also come in for criticism.
The government unit responsible for today's event classifies complicity
in human rights abuses, labour rights violations and pollution as
"unacceptable" corporate behaviour. On that basis alone, several of
the multinationals lining up alongside Gordon Brown today are less
than appropriate for an anti-poverty event. When we raised this, the
civil servant in charge said "some of the companies might seem a bit
unusual", but added cheerily: "Isn't that great?"
It would indeed be great if the initiative had been designed to challenge
the companies' behaviour and bring them into line with international
standards. Yet the government has made clear there is no such intention
and insists the initiative will not be used to challenge poor business
practices when companies are found to have strayed from the path of
Moreover, the government has admitted that there is no mechanism in
place to measure whether any of the products and services to be launched
by the companies will actually make a difference to poverty levels
in the developing world. Without such checks the event looks suspiciously
like a PR exercise designed to allow a few questionable multinationals
to talk up their credentials without altering their behaviour in any
In his new report on business and human rights, UN special representative
John Ruggie attacks the "permissive environment for wrongful acts
by companies of all kinds" which has been fostered as a result of
government reliance on voluntary initiatives rather than regulation
of business. He also laments government failure to take action in
defence of the victims of corporate abuse. When the UN human rights
council convenes to debate his recommendations, Ruggie will call on
world leaders to introduce a proper framework of regulation and accountability
to restore some balance between the interests of big business and
the needs of working people.
The battle to end poverty and win human rights is too important to
be left to voluntary initiatives of corporations. The mantra that
"enlightened self-interest" will lead business to behave responsibly
has been exposed as a myth by the very companies that have signed
up to Brown's initiative. Only by ensuring that corporations can be
held accountable can we stop the abuses and make progress towards
a better world.
The writer is executive director of War on Want
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