Painting the face of globalization: human or corporate?
One of the first messages to greet a visitor to the United Nations building in New York is the words written on the building's walls: "Peace has another word, which is development." A September 15-17 meeting at the United Nations organized by the UN Department of Public Information to bring together the worldwide Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) community, clearly sought to gain civil society's support for this UN maxim.
In a written introduction to the conference that focused on the challenges of globalization, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan voiced UN support for globalization as the means for world development. "The United Nations has no higher priority than to explore and support ways of ensuring that the forces unleashed by globalization can benefit people everywhere," he wrote. But the UN-sponsored conference did not question the process of globalization itself. Annan wrote, "While it appears the process of globalization is inevitable, it is by no means beyond our control." It is evident the UN seeks a greater role in determining the course of globalization.
The NGO conference was a noble attempt to involve civil society on an equal footing with corporate interest and local and international government in shaping global economic policy. But the United Nations may have overestimated the influence of civil society as represented by the NGO community and underestimated the power of big business.
Speaking at an afternoon meeting on September 15, UN Development Program (UNDP) Administrator Mark Brown said he did not think the great disparity of wealth and power occasioned by globalization was so alarming. Brown said civil society was demonstrating a new ability to shape global public policy. But he was only able to cite the campaign against landmines and the third world debt relief movement as examples of the empowerment of civil society. And Brown failed to mention that the landmine issue had little or no corporate opposition and that most of the funding and publicity came from international celebrities. He also failed to note that the movement for debt relief stands to grant only a mere fourth of the $200 billion demanded by perhaps the broadest coalition of NGOs ever assembled.
The power of international corporations however, is well documented. The corporations, more than half of which come from just five countries (United States, Japan, France, Germany and the Netherlands), account for 70 percent of the world's trade, according to Joshua Karliner's 1997 book, The Corporate Planet. Karliner writes that more than 50 percent of the largest 100 economies in the world are corporations. The combined revenues of Ford and General Motors alone exceed the combined GDP for all of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Karliner, transnational corporations both "exert significant influence over the domestic and foreign policies of the Northern industrialized governments that host them" and "are moving to circumvent national governments" in developing countries.
Several NGO representatives present at the conference on globalization did not hesitate to highlight the non-altruistic nature of many corporations. Speaking at the conference on September 16, International Labor Organization (ILO) advisor Frans Roselaers said that globalization has given precedence to market forces over negotiated structures affecting labor rights. Inequality has increased, he said, and corporations are responsible for human rights abuses such as forced labor, child labor and violation of the right of collective bargaining.
Martha Ojeda, Executive Director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (Mexico), followed Roselaers in accusing transnational corporations of the worst human rights abuses such as imprisonment without charge, police brutality, sexual molestation, starvation, maiming and killing. "Workers eat badly, live badly and die badly as a result of [corporate] policies," she said.
The sole corporate representative to Thursday's meeting, Sharon Cohen of Reebok International Ltd., could only admit that such abuses did exist but that corporations would soon realize there would be a "better quality of product with better working conditions." But Cohen failed to address the problems posed by corporate exploitation of the large and vulnerable labor forces in many developing countries.
Despite its willingness to become involved in the process of globalization, the UN has been reluctant to itself guarantee the human rights admittedly being violated by corporations under the guise of globalization. Falling far short of Ojeda's calls for direct UN protection of workers' rights, the UN has called on civil society and local governments to strengthen themselves to better cope with globalization. Brown, of the UNDP, faulted the corruption, lack of transparency and dishonest legal systems of national governments as being responsible for scaring away investors and allowing the inequality of wealth at the root of human rights issues.
The UN's role as a mediator in the interplay between corporations and civil society has been undermined by the body's recent cooperation with the corporate sector. The June-July issue of the UN Development Update details how the United Nations is drawing closer to the IMF, the World Bank and other pro-corporate organizations. World Bank President James Wolfensohn is quoted as saying, "I see no distinction between the UN setting goals and the World Bank carrying them out."
And the United Nations has begun to work directly with corporate interests to give them a greater voice. A 1997 UN meeting with a group of corporate CEOs laid the framework for corporate involvement in UN decision making under the Commission of Sustainable Development. David Korten of Corporation Watch, who attended the 1997 meeting, wrote later that the demands of the corporations supercede those made by the NGO community and that "there is a alliance between the public and private sectors aligned behind the consolidation of corporate rule over the global economy."
The UN's support of globalization behind corporate forces could have dangerous effects. A July issue of the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service quoted Manfred Bienefeld of Canada's Carleton University, in an article entitled "Can Global Finance be Regulated" (March 24). Bienefeld argues that a large reason for the worldwide economic crash of the late 1920s was the League of Nations' (the predecessor to the United Nations) stubborn support for global economic liberalization. "The League of Nations was single-mindedly promoting liberalization of the global economy as the alleged recipe for prosperity and stability. But the more it succeeded the more unstable the global economy became," she wrote.
Some of the same challenges that faced the League of Nations now face the UN. Issues of globalization are set to shape the character of the 21st century, and it remains to be seen whether the UN will push to keep a human face on this growth.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com
Topics: Globalization, United Nations