Published on Friday, May 26, 2000 by Inter Press Service
NGOs Wary Of Increased United Nations - Corporate 'Partnerships'
by Ihsan Bouabid
NEW YORK - The United Nations must tread carefully in its partnership with the private sector, setting up monitoring mechanisms to ensure that it does not lose sight of the values enshrined in its Charter, non governmental organisations (NGOs) meeting here this week said Thursday.

At the Davos Forum in January 1999, where governments and business leaders met to discuss the world economy, UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan called for a "Global Compact" between the United Nations and the business community.

He challenged business leaders to embrace and enact nine core principles derived from international agreements on labour standards, human rights and environmental practices. In exchange, he promised the United Nations will support free trade and open markets.

Since then, the United Nations has been talking with the private sector exchanging views and promoting partnership-based approaches to achieve the aims of this Compact.

It also has a website on global corporate citizenship which "brings together activities, issues and information related to the Compact's three areas," said Denize O'Brien, Information Officer at the UN Department of Public Information. (

Addressing the Millennium Forum on May 22, Annan spoke of the need for new norms of international behaviour, stressing that non governmental organisations (NGOs) could help individuals participate in the global economy and make sure that policy choices had an impact on daily lives.

But although citizens' organisations recognise that the private sector has "an enormous influence" on human development and rights, they are not so enthusiastic about this partnership and fear that due to the financial pressure it faces, the United Nations will "sell its soul to the devil."

"It's dangerous to assume that the goals of the private sector are somehow synonymous with those of the United Nations because they most emphatically are not," Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF once said.

"As an educator, I use to say to my children that the UN is good and that big corporations are not so good," stated Kenny Bruno.

Bruno is part of a global movement "Citizens Compact On the United Nations and Corporations" through which more than 40 organisations from all over the globe pledge their active support for a "strengthening of the United Nations, financially and politically."

They also adhere to nine principles to safeguard the "image, mission and credibility" of the United Nations as it deals with the private sector.

"Multinational corporations are too important for their conduct to be left to voluntary and self generated standards," says James A. Paul, Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum. A legal framework, including monitoring, must be developed to govern their behaviour, he argued.

Paul found it disturbing that private companies had been "pouring millions of dollars into US right wing organisations such as the Heritage Foundation that had been attacking the UN, while there are attempts to restrict NGOs access to the UN."

Moreover, say several representatives of NGOs, the United Nations must ensure that the Bretton Woods institutions - the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank - and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) respect the principles and goals of the United Nations Charter which is centred on humanitarianism.

Above all, the United Nations should not endorse or promote products or brand names of any private corporation.

The idea that representatives of international corporations enjoy a special status in the United Nations was dismissed by Bill Stirberly of the International Chamber of Commerce, one of the private institutions currently discussing with the UN Secretary General the framework of the Global Compact. He also denied NGO criticism that through this partnership, the world body was bringing the private sector directly into its decision making process.

Several humanitarian organisations, including Handicap International, Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders meanwhile have called on civil society to protect the humanitarian principles which are linked with human rights and to reject "all attempts to transform the field of humanitarian assistance into a new market open to private companies."

Jean Francois Vidal, of Action Against Hunger, says that several international companies have begun competing with humanitarian NGOs in the field, "making our work even more difficult." Vidal expressed strong doubts that private companies can protect civilians, especially in conflict situations.

NGOs have advised the United Nations to ensure that private donations to the world body go to programmes which have no link to the donor's commercial activities.

Furthermore, in its partnership with the private sector, the United Nations should act with "full transparency at the conceptual, planning and implementation stages", and NGOs should have access to the information.

Copyright 2000 Inter Press Service