Corporatism Goes Global: International Organizations, Nongovernmental Organization Networks, and Transnational Business

Article excerpt

In February 1998, an organization called the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was launched at a ceremony in Cape Town, South Africa. An independent commission that included members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) opposed to the construction of large dams, engineering and business groups favoring it, and other experts, the WCD was the outcome of years of international protests about the ecological and social impact of dams. The protests, which in many cases slowed down or completely halted work on specific projects, alarmed the World Bank and the corporations involved. The result was a tripartite meeting of representatives of the World Bank, civil society (NGOs), and business, which led to the organization of the WCD.

In January 1999, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed a "global compact" between the UN, business, and civil society to tackle the crucial and contentious issues of environmental protection and human and workers' rights. The tripartite model--an international organization, civil society (NGOs and labor organizations), and business--was evident in this initiative as well. A year later, again during the meeting of the World Economic Forum, the first modest step to make the Global Compact a reality was taken with the official launch of a website, dubbed as the world's most comprehensive resource center on global citizenship. More important than the website was the symbolism of the launching ceremony. At hand were the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the director of the International Labour Organization, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, the chief executive officer of BP-Amoco, and the general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. [1] Composed of big business, big labor organizations, and international organizations, the Global Compact was an attempt to recreate at the global level the corporatist tripartite arrangements, including government, business, and labor unions, familiar to many European and Latin American countries.

The above examples are not isolated ones; similar initiatives are multiplying rapidly. As the international community tries to come to grips with the challenge posed by new issues of regulation and control that can only be tackled at the transnational level and by the militancy of NGO networks seeking to impose their solutions, the tripartite corporatist model of participation is being reinvented. Global corporatism is an idea whose time has come.

But global corporatism is also a dangerous idea, to be approached with less enthusiasm and greater caution than prevail now. International organizations, business, and civil society networks all have much to contribute to the solution of the growing number of problems that transcend national boundaries. They contribute, however, in different ways, bringing different assets and relying on different strengths. Trying to tie the three types of organizations into close cooperative relations may weaken the contributions each can make, while at the same time creating new bureaucratic structures. And, despite the claims that tripartite agreements will introduce greater democracy in the realm of global governance, it is doubtful that close cooperation between essentially unrepresentative organizations--international organizations, unaccountable NGOs, and large transnational corporations--will do much to ensure better protection for, and better representation of, the interests of populations affected by global polici es.

In the two examples mentioned above and in many similar ones, the word corporatism is not mentioned. The operative word today is partnership. World Bank president James Wolfensohn has made partnership with NGOs a hallowed concept. A visit to the World Bank website offers a panoply of links to seminars, special events, partnership opportunities, information kiosks, and discussion groups on NGOs and their role in international governance. …