Adalila Zelada | 30.08.2002 01:49
August 29, 2002
by Adalila Zelada
JOHANNESBURG, S.A. – The United Nations is in full swing hosting the World Summit on Sustainable Development in this South African city where over 100 world leaders are converging to decide the environmental and economic fate of the planet. Against this backdrop, the business community has been hard at work pushing through its free market agenda while at the same time improving its image as environment and people friendly. Critics contend that these two objectives are incompatible. But the U.N. seems to think it can work.
Even before the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a new program called “The Global Compact” – a non binding agreement between corporations and the U.N. According to Annan, the U.N. will assist corporations to “embrace . . . universal principles of human rights, core labour standards and the human environment.” Annan says the Compact will “help markets deliver what they are best at –while at the same time contributing to a more humane world.”
One of the representatives of corporate interests at the Summit is “Business Action for Sustainable Development” (BASD). Through BASD, corporations are taking advantage of the summit to publicize the “partnerships” that they have created with non-governmenal organizations (NGO’s) and governments to address issues such issues as energy, water and agriculture. The U.N. will devote considerable summit fanfare to release of an official list of such projects, fanfare which critics charge is designed to hide a lack of more substantive action by the governments gathered here. These “Type 2” initiatives will officially be launched this afternoon.
One such controversial public-private partnership is between the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and McDonald’s – the fast-food giant. Both entities have agreed to celebrate jointly “World Children’s Day” on November 20, 2002. This explicit endorsement by a U.N. body of a fast-food chain seen by many as promoting life threatening eating habits among young children has drawn harsh criticism. An alliance of public health professionals and advocates has demanded that UNICEF sever its ties with McDonald’s, noting that “[i]t is not the proper role of UNICEF to endorse or serve as enabler for
corporate activities of this kind.”
The Global Compact has also come under intense scrutiny from civil society. Greenpeace International, Third World Network and other NGO’s have sent a letter to the U.N. declaring that the Compact and its guidelines “allow business entities with poor records to ‘bluewash’ their image by wrapping themselves in the flag of the United Nations. [The guidelines] favor corporate-driven globalization rather than the environment, human health, local communities, workers, farmers, women and the poor.” Participating corporations include Nike, Shell, Novartis and Rio Tinto, all accused of major environmental and human rights abuses in recent years.