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6 March 2001

Globalization and the Future of the United Nations

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Part 6 of: "Globalization": the UN's "Safe Haven" for the World's Marginalized (2001)

Globalization: the UN's "safe haven" for the world's poor?

What is so appalling is the amazing arrogance of John Ruggie, speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General, concerning what some people have decided with great secrecy in the SG's Office is the "only" way forward for the world's poor - or was this done with the connivance of some Member States? They have done this despite views to the contrary by many, who are pejoratively labeled "rejectionists" -- namely "non-believers". They have completely ignored many coherently argued studies in support of alternative ways forward. Examples include Hazel Henderson (1999) in work commissioned by the New Economics Foundation to launch their ambitious programme Reshaping the Global Economy -- work researched in association with Focus on the Global South.

The UNDP has responded vigorously to criticism of its Global Sustainable Development Facility (GSDF) by claiming the lives of the world's two billion poor people can "only" be improved with the help of multinationals. However, a week before the launch of the Global Compact, the UNDP's Human Development Report acknowledged that globalization had been a boon for only 20 percent of the world population -- and a problem for many of the rest. It had ensured the enrichment of transnational corporations (many of which avoid payment of taxes) -- often at the expense of an increasingly impoverished developing world.

If the UN's version of globalization is the only way forward for the world's marginalized, to what extent does it carry the connotation of being, in the understanding of some, the Final Solution. Such tasteless allusions merit being explored further because, like it or not, it is the high resource strategies of multinationals and those that support them which are effectively turning the planet as a whole into a "gas chamber". The climatic challenges of global warming are merely precursors.

The UN has partnered with bodies who have never exhibited the slightest sensitivity to the world's poor - other than as a potential market for many dubious products necessity. And, incredibly naively, it believes it can encourage such corporations to behave in ways that are contrary to their bottom-line needs for survival -- and the enrichment of their shareholders. This is all done without taking account of the policy shambles thrust upon developing countries and transition economies over the years by the schools of thought from which the Secretary-General got this bright idea. And the UN ignored the recent failures in judgement and policy in relation to several massacres approaching in magnitude that of the Holocaust.

The core of the "Big Lie", seemingly promoted by the Secretary-General, lies in defining globalization in a way that satisfies the agendas of multinational corporations and then stigmatizing all those who have alternative views of the process as rejectionist. Contrary to this deliberately polarized perspective, it is quite possible that there are several (if not many) views of globalization that may be much healthier for the world's poor than that embodied in the Global Compact - as supplied by thinkers who have a dubious track record of achievements over several "development decades". It is also possible that the way forward lies in a complementarity of two or more such perspectives that the UN has made no effort whatsoever to explore or to report on. It is intellectually dishonest in the extreme to construct an argument to imply that unless people believe in the UN's view of globalization then they do not believe in any form of globalization. History is replete with examples of the consequences of this ploy as a basis for wars of religion.

Corporatizing the United Nations

There have been many stages in the process of "privatizing international governance", some of them less than obvious and largely unreported.

An interesting early example, notable at the height of anti-transnational rhetoric, was the absence of any question about one multinational that had a privileged position in the UN Secretariat and in every Specialized Agency, namely a well-known travel agency. The travel budget of UN personnel has always been high - and notable for an aversion to "economy" tickets -- but it was never clear how that multinational travel agency acquired and maintained that position. This will prove an interesting precedent for multinationals with newfound access under the Global Compact. For example, following the old business adage (relating to IBM), will anyone in the UN's Inter-Agency Procurement Services Office (IAPSO) ever get fired in the future for giving preference to suppliers that have adhered to the Global Compact?

An early attempt to ensure the presence of multinational corporations in UN processes occurred at the World Food Conference (Rome, 1974) when the US delegation insisted that the solution to world hunger was agribusiness. The Industry Cooperative Programme (ICP) was created with corporate employees and offices made available to them in FAO -- providing facilities for lobbyists for agribusiness. The degree of corporate influence on FAO decision-making (including technical assistance and field programmes) was only terminated with the expulsion of the ICP in 1978 -- although it was immediately transformed, with the same staff, into the ICD (Industry Council for Development) and housed within the confines of UNDP in New York.

With the rise in computer technology, it was interesting to observe which computer systems and software, supplied by multinationals to the UN system, got installed where and under what circumstances. One consequence was the early incompatibility between systems in different departments and agencies. This would clearly have been a sensible move by colluding suppliers concerned by the effectiveness of the UN in curtailing the activities of multinationals in the pre-Compact period. It successfully delayed computer efficacy within the UN by a decade.

Following the Cold War, there has been a major funding crisis for intergovernmental organizations whose programmes had probably been one of the major beneficiaries of that conflict. There was no "peace dividend" as far as they were concerned. On the contrary they had effectively been part of the war zone and once the conflict was over funds were withdrawn or withheld. Ironically, given its peacekeeping mandate, the glory days of UN system budgets were a result of a "war dividend".

The message to them gradually has now become "seek your value and legitimacy in some other way". UN officials are embracing partnerships with multinationals in part out of frustration with the considerable failure of development efforts over the past several decades and in part because they think they have no choice. Partnership with corporations was framed as a prime opportunity: "marry wealth to survive" - a lesson learnt from the strategic marriages imposed on the inheritors of impoverished kingdoms throughout history. The unsavoury attributes of a strategic spouse can be ignored if the dowery is significant -- and mild flirtations on the side with more attractive partners are always an option (NGOs beware!), if they are not taken too seriously. The rationalization followed. Betraying previous partnerships and loyalties would be seen as a small price to pay in the fight for survival - as history has always demonstrated.

Corporatization of the UN effectively commenced at the Earth Summit in 1992 when the UN refused to circulate the recommendations of its Centre on Transnational Corporations concerning protection of weaker countries from predatory corporations through their appropriate regulation. The UN decided instead to adopt the proposals of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development that recommended corporate self-regulation. The Centre was dissolved in 1993. In February 1992, UNDP had already signed an agreement with ICC to provide the latter with "financial and practical support for ICC efforts to strengthen the private sector"

There is a continuing temptation to UN bodies to offer privileged access to CEOs of multinational corporations at UN conferences. The sequel to the 1974 World Food Conference, namely the FAO's World Food Summit in 1996, saw efforts by FAO to invite corporate CEO's to the Summit as special guests of the Director-General. In return for million dollar contributions FAO was considering having CEO's at the same table as Prime Ministers and Presidents, but also assuring them of direct influence over any policies and programmes related to their businesses that came out of the Summit. Plans for the 1999 Seattle meeting of WTO envisaged sponsorship of delegates of some countries by corporations. Both schemes were dropped, but it is clear that the impulse survives.

In June 1997 the President of the UN General Assembly announced that corporations would be given a formal role in UN decision-making ( Early in 1998 it was revealed that UNCTAD was working with ICC to assist developing countries to "formulate competition and consumer protection law" and facilitate trade -- assisting big business to overcome the resistance of weaker developing countries.. The Secretary-General launched the Business Humanitarian Forum at a secret meeting in January 1999, explaining that the business community was fast becoming one of the UN's most important allies. Several months later UNDP was discovered, on the basis of a leaked memo, to be offering to multinational corporations privileged access to its offices and contacts worldwide in exchange for a fee of $50,000.

As a consequence, the secretary-general of the ICC was able to state that: "The way the United Nations regards international business has changed fundamentally. This shift towards a stance more favourable to business is being nurtured from the very top." (International Herald Tribune, 6 February 1998). Following a meeting between UN and ICC executives on 9 February 1998, anticipating the Global Compact, a joint declaration was issued whereby the two parties committed to "forge a close global partnership to secure greater business input into the world's economic decision-making and boost the private sector in the least developed countries."

Preserving the United Nations

The United Nations has long been extremely short of funds, to the point of threatening to be unable to pay monthly salaries to civil servants. The reluctance of US Republicans to authorize payment of arrears, and the probably perpetuation of these challenges under the Bush Presidency, means that creative ways must be sought to maintain a semblance of UN operations and credibility.

The Secretary-General will undoubtedly seek further guidance from his American colleagues in their effort to control the UN through the backdoor. A major step would be the full recognition that UNDP has long been discretely operating as the United Nations Developers' Programme and should no longer be concerned at the possibility of its covert behaviour being 'outed' by critics holding it to outdated standards requiring any genuine concern for "developees" -- beyond that required for public relations purposes.

It is worth recalling Margaret Thatcher's response to Harold Macmillan's early objection that her privatization proposals in the UK were tantamount to 'selling the family silver.' She declared that she was indeed selling the family silver, but that she was 'selling it back to the family'. History has identified the "family" that benefitted most from this process -- and the operational consequences for services such as the railways. The multinationals are finally being recognized as the UN's true family -- to whom the Secretary-General is selling UN values.

In the spirit of this new UN strategy, of which the Global Compact initiative is only a current example, the following might be envisaged as a means of maintaining the UN's income stream in the future:


Sale or rental of services:

Corporate philanthropy:

This practice is highly developed amongst multinational corporations either in the form of direct donations or as a voluntary deduction on employee salaries (as notably developed by United Way). It might be adapted to direct support of the United Nations. The initiative of Ted Turner to donate $1 billion to the UN, as Time-Warner shares, is an indication of the possibility -- acknowledged by the UN through the creation of its United Nations Fund for International Partnerships ( to handle receipt of such funds.


Theme parks:

As a longer term project to place the UN system on a sounder basis, there is a case for exploring the feasibility of integrating the thematic preoccupations of its secretariats into theme parks -- thus reframing secretariat activities as "edutainment" of public opinion. With the experience of Disney Worlds, the major media companies could certainly offer some interesting designs for public experience of the UN in operation.

Many more variants will become possible with the transition to virtual organization and programme management in an increasingly web-based society of which the UN has as yet little awareness. If the UN's view of globalization is genuinely designed to respond to the needs of the world's poor through action by multinational corporations, it would be logical (given the increasing democratic deficit) to explore the transition away from governance based on voter-democracy to governance based on shareholder-democracy. How might the UN then ensure that the poor then become shareholders in such corporations (according to the philosophy of Margaret Thatcher).

Any competent marketing agency could flesh out and extend such proposals in the light of well-developed models used by corporations in the USA. Which of these elements is incorporated into the actual strategy implemented, it will be interesting to observe. It is unfortunate that neither the UN nor the academic community has devoted resources to identifying acceptable boundaries for such initiatives under varying conditions. Cynicism aside, many of them could serve as the basis for thinking through creative possibilities for the future. However the covert nature of the current UN strategy makes any such investigation totally suspect.

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