The evils of business weigh heavily on the minds of
campaigners here in Johannesburg.
Naomi Klein complained
bitterly to this site about a
merger between the goals of the United Nations and the goals of private
Michael Dorsey, meanwhile, said the summit would only
be successful if it moved away from advocating public-private partnerships
with "corporate criminals."
And on August 31, illegal marches against globalisation
and corporate greed are almost certain to dominate the news agenda.
Only the most radical of the radicals contemplate the
abolition of the private sector, however.
So what do they want done to stem the tide of corporate
The chief proposal is for a new framework of global
rules. A system of "binding social accountability" which give
citizens more rights and business more responsibilities.
Cheerleader for this approach is Friends of the
busy lobbying for "strong language" on this issue in the final
Its case is simple. A voluntary approach is no good, it says. All that
happens is that bad companies undercut good ones. Effective regulation is
needed to level the playing field.
Surprisingly, business - or at least the type of business represented at
the summit - agrees.
"It's a myth that we want a lawless wild west society," says
Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chair of the Business Action on Sustainable
Development and ex-chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of companies
Raising the stakes
So whatís the problem? It's a question of how much regulation and where
it is applied.
As an opening gambit, at least, FoE are demanding what amounts to a
radically different model of capitalism.
"At present," they say, "directors of publicly traded
corporations have a duty to account to shareholders and maximise financial
Their proposals would make companies accountable to a range of other
stakeholders, such as the communities they operate in.
Directors would then be expected to balance profit with the interests of
all those affected by their business.
Furthermore, they would be personally liable for any
Business doesn't take the threat of stakeholder capitalism
that seriously. Any attempt to construct such a complex system, it reckons,
would inevitably flounder.
What worries it more is the principal that any regulation
should be contemplated at an international level.
Ever since the Second World War, international trade
negotiations have had one objective - to lubricate trade across borders and stop
a tit-for-tat return to protectionism.
An international framework for corporate accountability
would be something quite different.
FoE wants the new International Criminal Court to try
directors and corporations for environmental, social and human rights crimes.
And this kind of threat has sent business leaders scurrying
into the lobbies.
Game, set, match
Their lobbying has been business-like and effective - and
one gets the impression they're a little irritated that the issue won't quite
"Go and ask the NGOs why no government wants this kind
of one-size-fits-all regulation," Lord Holme, vice-chair, challenged Daily
Sir Mark Moody Stuart was more emollient. Regulation should
stay where it belongs - at national level - he told us.
"The woes in the world are due to the breakdown of
government structures locally," he added. "The collapse of government
is not a problem caused by business - itís a problem that affects
FoE, meanwhile, do not accept they've lost the argument.
And they believe they have a new champion in South Africa.
"We've had a briefing from them and think they have an
important point," South African trade minister, Dennis Erwin, told us.
"We're very pleased with the approach they are taking
and we like the fact they've put forward concrete proposals."
Kind words. But it remains highly unlikely that the issue
is going anywhere. For the moment, the rich countries may be listening to South
Africa's point of view, but they will certainly strangle any proposals as the
negotiations move to a close.
Privately, most campaigners accept this - but they have no
intention of giving up.
Their press conference today will focus exclusively on
the issue. And the words "corporate takeover" will feature heavily in
their statements next week on why the summit has failed.
Steven | 28/08/02