Global Partnership Widened

Two gatherings - one organized by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the other by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - highlighted a determination to widen the global partnerships between the United Nations and key players in today's world. These partnerships are not limited to the business community, crucial as they are, but also extend to non-governmental organizations with grass-roots support on specific issues and key personalities with influential impact on decision-making.

A Global Compact received at least public commitment by over 50 companies to apply specific standards of human conduct whenever they do business. The Secretary-General convened a day-long meeting at UN Headquarters on 26 July to encourage multinational corporations to commit themselves to support human rights, eliminate child labour, allow free trade unions and refrain from polluting the environment. The multinationals - some of them the target for protests - were joined by labour associations and watchdog groups in signing the Global Compact.

The Compact consists of nine principles drawn from international accords like the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the Rio Declaration adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The initiative will require companies to post a yearly update on their progress under the Compact, and they will be subject to criticism on their performance. The companies are expected to cooperate with UN agencies on social projects in the developing countries in which they operate.

The Secretary-General first launched the Global Compact at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999, where he warned that globalization could face a backlash because global rules for protecting corporate interests had become far more robust than those for safeguarding social standards.

Professor John Ruggie, Assistant Secretary-General, said this and similar initiatives on how corporations should act to safeguard environment and labour standards, were aimed in part at moving the debate on those issues out of the World Trade Organization. The WTO, he said, "was never designed and cannot handle being an arbiter of human rights, labour and environmental issues".

Mr. Annan said that companies should not wait for Governments to pass laws before they paid a decent wage or agreed not pollute the environment. If companies led by example, Governments might wake up and make laws to formalize the various practices, he said. Companies should also adhere to the standards even when the nations where they conduct business did not require them to do so.

The New York Times observed that, since the collapse of the world trade talks and noisy protests in Seattle last year, multinational companies have been "scrambling to forge alliances" with some of their critics, including unions and human rights and conservation groups, and that the UN-sponsored Global Compact was the "most visible example" of such alliances. It was also an attempt by Mr. Annan to make the world body a more effective force for social and labour standards.

Writing in The Financial Times, Nike's Philip Knight called the Global Compact a much-needed framework for monitoring the behaviour of multinationals, for without it, many companies would continue to feel pulled in all directions. It had the potential to become a truly effective forum because companies, trade unions, UN agencies and NGOs would work together to address global issues through dialogue and cooperative initiatives for the people most affected by globalization. He believed, he said, "in a global system that measures every multinational against a set of core, universal standards, using an independent process of social performance monitoring akin to financial monitoring".

Some observers see the partnership as vital as the world grapples with the reality that nations cannot regulate, tax and set standards for commerce as efficiently when companies spread their operations over many countries, rich and poor. In terms of forging partnership, the session showed how world Governments and corporate leaders increasingly rely on each other to demonstrate that they are helping the people left behind when companies move capital and manufacturing plants around the world.

Many were of the view, however, that the effort was highly unlikely to alter the global economic landscape immediately. Critics said the UN was participating in a "bluewash", allowing some of the largest and richest corporations to "wrap themselves in the United Nations' blue flag without requiring them to do anything new. Some, like Greenpeace, did not sign the Compact, telling the Secretary-General in a letter that some of the participants had poor records of operating abroad and did not deserve to be UN partners. The letter called on Mr. Annan to "reassess your overall approach to UN-corporate partnerships", adding that the mission and integrity of the United Nations wee at stake.

The United Nations will not insist on strict compliance. Indeed, Mr. Annan pointed out that the UN had neither the capacity nor the mandate to police the companies. Ruggie, too, acknowledged that adherence to the Compact was purely voluntary, because the UN had no mandate to negotiate a binding code of conduct for multinationals. The Compact which companies had signed on to was far from toothless, Ruggie said, convinced that transparency and the accountability of public opinion could be as powerful a force as any enforcement mechanism that can be devised.

Another gathering was the OECD-sponsored "Partnership for the 21st Century", held at the end of June in Paris, which also brought together representatives of Governments, the private sector, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette stressed the need for a practical partnership to meet development goals. She told the participants: "We are making progress, although unevenly. Yet, thus far, we have failed to work together as productively as we could, or as effectively as we need to for the future. This is where partnership comes in. Everybody has to play a role in translating the development goals into tangible results".

Governments of OECD countries held many of the main levers for progress to be made in developing countries, she said. "Only they can expand debt relief. Only they can open their markets to developing-country exports. Only they can dispense more and better-targeted official development assistance. Far-sighted leadership in these areas could go a very long way towards creating and improving opportunities of the poor".

But even enlightened global policy and decisive action would not be enough, Mme. Frechette continued. In today's world, global actors with tremendous influence on the quality of people's lives were increasingly those that operate outside the public domain. NGOs and business alike were coming to grips with the need to see beyond their specific goals and concerns to the broader picture. "Single-issue tenacity has its place. But there must also be an understanding that there is a range of priorities of equal urgency and with equal claim on the world's attention. There must be a willingness to form alliances that might not be obvious but that would advance the overall cause. How refreshing it would be, for example, if environmental groups were to campaign for extending economic opportunities to the poor, or if business were to lend its support to debt relief measures".

"While there is no shortage of good intentions, we are all feeling our way towards viable approaches to tap the rich pool of energy, creativity and goodwill that exists. If we are to attain the priority goals set out by the international community, we must give direction and encouragement to these new forces". It was in this context that the Secretary-General had proposed a Global Compact with the world's business community.

The famously fragmented United Nations system was also trying to practice what it preaches, she said, concluding: "The United Nations cannot and does not want to usurp the role of other actors on the world stage, but to become a more effective catalyst for change and coordination among them. That is our most vital role".