South Africa: Business Role is Greeted with Some Suspicion

Publisher Name: 
Financial Times

Battle lines are being drawn up as delegates gather for the summit. For some
governments, it is an opportunity to promote the role of business in
sustainable development.

But many campaigners have the opposite goal: to stem the tide of corporate
influence over social and environmental policy.

There is widespread scepticism about the role played by business at the
summit on the part of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Their
suspicions are summed up by CorpWatch, a US-based campaign group. "A
crucial question hangs over the Johannesburg meeting: Can the UN member
states successfully sponsor a conference that by its very nature must
confront the practices of big business, while simultaneously seeking to
increase UN co-operation with big business?"

Some campaign groups are prepared to engage positively with business. But
most are convinced that business is exacerbating the problems being
addressed by the summit. Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) says "a
potent cocktail" of greater corporate power and weaker regulation is
contributing to growing levels of environmental damage.

It cites a report published this year by the United Nations that concluded:
"There is a growing gap between the efforts of business and industry to
reduce their impact on the environment and the worsening state of the
planet." It blamed this gap on "the fact that in most industry sectors, only a
small number of companies are actively striving for sustainability".

The solution offered by FOEI is to call for a global framework convention on
corporate accountability. This proposal would require corporations to meet
best environment, social, labour and human rights practices wherever they
operate. They would also be accountable for any environmental and social
damage they inflict.

The call for new rules on corporate accountability is misguided, in the view of
Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of Royal Dutch/Shell who is
chairman of Business Action on Sustainable Development (BASD), a group
spearheading business involvement in the summit.

The real need, he argues, is for greater enforcement of existing laws in
developing countries, so that the efforts of responsible businesses are not
undermined by illegal operators. "The number one priority should be improved
local and national governance," he says.

But the BASD is viewed with deep suspicion by some activists. CorpWatch,
for example, is highly critical of members of BASD, which it claims has
flawed recent histories on social and environmental issues. It will be awarding
"Green Oscars" at the summit to companies it deems guilty of harming the
environment.

The campaigners who signed the Girona Declaration, a statement prepared
by 40 activist groups that met in Girona in Spain in May this year, accuse
the BASD and other corporate lobby groups of manipulating the debate about
corporate accountability. "By engaging in 'dialogues' with critics,
incorporating the language of NGO criticisms into their rhetoric, publishing
glossy reports and demonstrating isolated examples of good corporate
citizenships, they are succeeding in blurring the lines between business and
NGOs, and deflecting pressure for fundamental change," it says.

But if the activists think business is responsible for many of the world's
problems, many governments think business is the best hope of finding
solutions to these problems. Companies are being exhorted to invest in
environment and development projects in what the United Nations calls
"partnership initiatives" between governments, business and civil society.

The stress on public-private partnerships infuriates many campaigners, who
argue that these voluntary initiatives allow companies to improve their
environmental credentials without making a significant impact on their core
business practices. The activists who signed up to the Girona declaration
say "much of what may be perceived as corporate environmentalism is
merely greenwash - an attempt to achieve the appearance of social and
environmental good without corresponding substance".

Even campaigners who applaud the efforts of individual companies in
furthering sustainable development point out that they are the exception,
rather than the rule. By focusing on the achievements of a small number of
forward-looking companies, governments are shirking their own
responsibilities, they say.

"We welcome it when companies try to improve their performance," says
Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth. "What annoys us is when politicians
use it as a reason to do nothing."

Infonic, a research group that examined the impact of NGOs on public
perceptions of the summit says hostility of many NGOs towards business,
coupled with cynicism about the likely outcomes of the summit, could lead to
a backlash. "Arguably, this is the biggest threat posed by Johannesburg: the
possibility that its failure will lead to a rejection of industry's role in the
sustainability debate.

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