Prague, 15 Oct (IPS/Alejandro Kirk)
-- Transnational corporations have "manoeuvred
brilliantly" at United Nations summits to avoid rules
that could make them accountable, says Susan Sonntag,
the renowned civil society activist.
Heinz Rothermund, a former Shell executive, says that
on the other hand "corporations have learned the hard
way to recognise that they are accountable to a large
array of stakeholders."
To Sonntag, "it's immediately obvious that the idea of
private profit as the lynchpin and basis of society
can only have been invented by idiots." To Rothermund,
profit "is a fundamental ingredient to progress and
societal success and therefore in the public's
Sonntag and Rothermund seem to have little in common.
Nor do Rufus Yerxa, deputy director-general of the
World Trade Organisation and Anuradha Mittal, an
Indian food security activist.
But they will be among 44 panellists with widely
conflicting views who will join an international
debate called by Czech president Vaclav Havel in
Prague on 18-22 October on the global gap between the
rich and the poor.
Among other panellists are US economist Jeffrey Sachs,
pioneering British environmentalist Edward Goldsmith,
deputy managing director of the International Monetary
Fund Eduardo Aninat (Chile) and Sylvia Borren,
director of Novib, the Dutch non-governmental
The conference "Bridging Global Gaps" has been held
every year since 1997. It is sponsored by Forum 2000,
a foundation launched in 1996 by Havel, philanthropist
Yohel Sasakawa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie
Wiesel. The conference provides an exceptional
opportunity for debate among those who hold opposing
views on globalisation. The opportunity seems
particularly precious when the prospect of war in the
Gulf and the Middle East threatens to further divide
Arguments have already begun before the debate.
Sonntag and Rothermund joined a debate on the web
ahead of the conference on the question "Is There a
Gap Between Public Interest and Private Profit?"
Sonntag, a US-born French political scientist,
believes there is a gap and it is growing. "It is a
myth to believe that large transnational corporations
provide a lot of jobs," she says. "Proportional to
their size and their sales, they provide very few."
Between 1993 and 1997 the world's largest 20
electronic and computer corporations increased sales
16.5% while the number of people they employ fell
4.3%, Sonntag says in the debate, quoting UN
The world's 11 biggest automobile and tyre
corporations increased sales 25% and employed 6.8%
less. The top 11 oil companies increased sales 18.8%
with a 24.4% drop in employment, according to the
figures cited by Sonntag.
Rothermund argues that "only profitable companies pay
taxes, provide long-term employment and through
dividends and value appreciation pay for our
Profitable companies also have "greater abilities in
social presence and environmental management as
prompted by the objectives of sustainable
development," he says.
In July 2000, UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan launched
the Global Compact initiative as an attempt "to bring
companies together with UN agencies, labour,
non-governmental organisations and other civil society
actors to foster action and partnerships in the
pursuit of good corporate citizenship."
But there is little agreement on how far this has got.
Roberto Savio, founder of IPS (Inter Press Service)
and member of the international steering committee of
the Global Social Forum, the civil society alternative
to the Global Economic Forum, says, "Initiatives like
[the] Global Compact are one of the clearest signs of
decline in the system of international relations."
There is, "no serious evidence that they
(corporations) have changed their genetic mission of
attaining profit for some of the values that should
govern political institutions, which are clearly
social and public."
But the "germ of new criteria" that corporations
should accept responsibility to social and public
principles apart from profit has begun to be debated,
he told IPS. "We will see in a few years in which
direction this goes."
Sonntag says that the UN has no capacity to monitor
companies' commitment to the Global Compact. "The
whole so-called corporate social responsibility
movement seems to me to stand more for corporate
self-regulation," she says.
"I think the companies have manoeuvred brilliantly
first in Rio (Earth Summit, 1992) and then
Johannesburg (World Summit on Sustainable Development,
2002) to attain their principal goal: avoid any
binding rules or machinery for making them accountable
to anyone but their shareholders."
Civil society will have to try to do the monitoring,
she says. But, she adds, "the number of things civil
society is expected to do which ought to be done by
official national or international bodies is rather
exhausting for the people concerned - nearly all of
them are volunteers."
Rothermund says that corporations cannot be blamed for
the wrong doings of their executives. "Behaviour
emanates from individuals," he says. "Corporations
merely provide identity." Corporations have "learned
the hard way that they are accountable to a large
array of stakeholders," Rothermund says.
"Are the codes of conduct introduced in corporations
matched by similar efforts in politics and by NGOs?"
The times when the responsibility of businesses was
said to be business alone are long gone, he says.
Debate along such lines at the Prague conference will
set the tone for discussions to follow at the meetings
of the Global Social Forum in Porto Alegre (Brazil)
and of the Global Economic Forum in New York early
For all the differences in view between the corporate
world and civil society, the growing certainty that
Earth is in immediate danger has prompted the urge for
a dialogue towards a strategy of survival.