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"The UN is being turned into a public-private partnership": An interview with Harris Gleckman

Lynn Fries speaks to Harris Gleckman about the growing corporate influence over our global governance system.

Lynn Fries Harris Gleckman
20 November 2019

Harris Gleckman is Senior Fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, and the author of 'Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy : A Global Challenge'. For the past 30 years, he has been a leading expert on multinational corporations, global environmental management, financing for development, global governance institutions, and the economics of climate change.

In this interview, Lynn Fries speaks to Harris about the growing corporate influence over our global governance system – and what can be done to stop it.

Produced by GPEnewsdocs.

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A new agreement with the World Economic Forum gives multinational corporations influence over matters of global governance.

Interview transcript

LYNN FRIES: This newsdoc explores the folly of expecting private enterprise to operate in the service of the public interest on a grand scale, globally, in key fields: Financing the United Nations 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, Climate change, Health, Digital cooperation, Gender equality and the empowerment of women, Education and skills. Specifically, it explores the United Nation’s Strategic Partnership Agreement with the World Economic Forum. The agreement was signed by the Office of the UN Secretary-General and Executives of WEF, the World Economic Forum better known as DAVOS, a leading proponent of public-private partnerships and a multistakeholder approach to global governance.

The United Nations as the world’s intergovernmental multilateral system should always focus on protecting common goods and providing global public benefits. That’s the position of signatories of an Open Letter sent to the UN Secretary-General by hundreds of civil society organizations from all regions of the world. The letter states: “This public-private partnership will permanently associate the UN with transnational corporations, some of whose essential activities have caused or worsened the social and environmental crises that the planet faces. This is a form of corporate capture”. The letter calls on the Secretary-General to terminate the Agreement.

I met up with Harris Gleckman to get his take on all this. Harris Gleckman is the author of “Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy: A Global Challenge” and is currently working on a handbook on the governance of multistakeholderism. Harris Gleckman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, UMass Boston. We go now to our featured clips of that meeting.

LYNN FRIES: Civil society is calling the World Economic Forum-UN Agreement as a corporate takeover of the UN.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: The UN Charter starts with the words “We the Peoples”. What the Secretary-General is doing through the Global Compact and now through the partnership with the World Economic Forum is tossing this out the window. He is saying: I'm going to align the organization with a particular structural relationship with multinationals, with multistakeholderism, and set aside attention to all the different peoples of the world in their particular interests of environment, health, water needs and really talk about how to govern the world with those who have a particular role in creating problems of wars from natural resources, of creating problems relating to climate, creating problems relating to food supply and technologies. That is undermining a core element of what the United Nations has been and should be for its next 75 years.

LYNN FRIES: It’s striking that the Agreement was signed as the UN is celebrating 100 years of multilateralism, the centenary year 1919 to 2019. And next year 2020 will mark the 1945 signing of the UN Charter 75th anniversary.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: Lynn, if I could give you an overview of what I'm concerned about the aspect of this about multistakeholderism is that the Secretary-General is the leading public figure for the multilateral system, the intergovernmental system. The World Economic Forum is the major proponent or one of the major proponents that a multi-stakeholder governance system should replace or marginalize the multilateral system. So the Secretary-General is taking steps to just jump on the bandwagon of multistakeholderism without a public debate about the democratic character of multistakeholderism, about a public debate about whether this is effectively able to solve problems, without a public debate about how stakeholders are selected to become global governors or even a public debate about what role the UN should have with any of these multistakeholder groups.

LYNN FRIES: I noted that the letter that was sent to the UN Secretary-General was also copied to the President of the General Assembly, the President of the Security Council and the Chair of the G77 with a request that it be circulated to all Governments as an Official Document.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: The Secretary-General should have gone to the intergovernmental process to debate this issue and now civil society is saying to the intergovernmental process: If the Secretary-General isn't going to tell you about it, we want you to have that debate anyway.

LYNN FRIES: In addressing the UN Secretary-General the letter by Civil Society Organizations recognized that the Secretary-General faced serious challenges.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: Yes it is absolutely the case that the Secretary-General is caught in a very difficult bind. Governments are not able to collect and are not collecting their taxes from the bulk of international business activities because of movements around tax havens. Government's say: well we don't have the money, so we cannot underwrite an effort to have a credible global governance system and this is affecting the operation of the UN. So the Secretary-General is looking at a challenge. He has the financial challenge: under payment of current dues and underfunding of the whole organization and an aggressive effort by the Trump administration to deconstruct all the organizations of the international system in a period Lynn where as you observed it's the hundredth year of multilateralism and the 75th year of the United Nations. And here the Secretary-General has two major crises on his hands in terms of the integrity of the system.

LYNN FRIES: Briefly give us some context on what you see as the motivation of the World Economic Forum.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: The World Economic Forum's motivation for joining, for perhaps, even driving forward this idea of a strategic partnership came from their work following the financial crisis starting n 2008-09. Davos, the common name for the World Economic Forum, convened 700 people working for a year and a half on a project that they called Global Redesign Initiative. They created that project because they realized that the whole public view about globalization as “a good for the world” was crumbling as a result of the financial crisis. And so they wanted to propose a new method of governing the world. And two of the elements of their proposal - that's actually a 700 page research paper - were to have a new relationship with governments in the United Nations system and to advocate that the global problems of the world should be solved by multistakeholder groups. This new partnership with the Secretary-General is an implementation of what they laid out in their Global Redesign Initiative to have a special place in the United Nations system for corporations to influence the behavior of the international organizations. And also for those corporations to be able to say to other people: Look we're in partnership with the United Nations so treat us as if we were neutral friendly bodies.

Let me just share with you a couple of examples that may help convey how serious that is. The Sustainable Development Goals were negotiated by governments in open sessions and they determined what the goals should be in 17 areas. Multistakeholder groups have announced that they are going to implement Goal 8 or Goal 6. And in the process, they declare: Here is how we will work on health, here’s how we will work on education, here’s how we will work on the environment. And rewrite what is the outcome of the Sustainable Development Goals in their own organizational interest. In some ways, that’s not surprising. You bring together a group of companies, selected governments, selected civil societies, selected academics and they will have their own internal dynamic of concern. But what they do is they assert that what they are doing- their rewritten version- actually they are telling the world: Well, we are actually doing the UN version. But that is not what their text is.

For example, in the energy field, in the energy goal there are five key adjectives that describe the target about global energy needs. The leading multistakeholder group, Sustainable Energy for All, their target has four of those adjectives and they drop the one which was AFFORDABILITY. This is how the process of multistakeholders taking over an area, redefining it but to the public announcing that they are implementing the intergovernmental goals is an unhealthy development in global governance.

LYNN FRIES: The Civil Society letter referred to the Agreement as a public-private partnership as did you in a recent OPED. Explain more about the public interest issue with public-private partnerships.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: Well let’s take a particular effort of a public-private partnership in providing water in a city. Historically this is a public or a municipal function to make sure that there is adequate amounts of water. The quality of water is healthy and its safety. And that it’s regularly and reliably available to the residents in the area. When a public-private partnership comes in, the corporate side may have an interest in some of these goals but add an additional one. That is they want a return on their investment, they want a profit from it. So some of the items of those various public functions – access, quality of material of water, reliability of water, access to all people then gets suddenly changed. So if there’s a manufacturing facility in one part of town more water may be diverted in that direction. If water purification is a little hard about a particular element: We may get a little lazy about doing that in the interests of profits. If it’s going to take a lot of work to dig up a street and replace pipes, they’ll say: Well, we can wait another five years and use those pipes which may have lead in them. All because now you add the fact that this public-private partnership needs to make a return of profit on what should be, what historically has a public municipal function. So you create this unequal development in terms of meeting public needs against the now new requirement that if you want a water system, you have to produce a profit for some of the actors involved.

LYNN FRIES: Food security is a major issue for vast populations. Comment on the implications for food security.

HARRIS GLECKMAN: If we want to build, recover, create a food secure world, you need to work with those who are growing, producing foods directly. Not those who are processing, distributing, marketing, rebranding. We need to start at the very base and create a system of engagement with small farmers, with small fishing families, with those around the world who are the actual food producers. Who have been preserving knowledge and building knowledge for centuries, they received that knowledge from centuries. That's the direction that would change the way in which we could actually look at the issues of hunger and food security in the world in a quite different fashion. Going to those who have a profit-centered motive in global governance will sharply narrow what might be possible to do. That's what the partnership will tend to do as the Secretary General and WEF have private discussions about how do we address the issue of food security while not talking very loud about how we make a profit in that process.

LYNN FRIES: If the UN Secretary-General invited you for a 1:1 what would you say?

HARRIS GLECKMAN: I think that I would say to the Secretary-General that he needs to give a major re-examination of the way the United Nations works with all of the peoples of the world. In order to provide a stronger base for the United Nations, the doors have to be made wider so that the views of various popular bodies, social movements, communities around the world have far greater access to the United Nations. I'd also say to him. Mr. Secretary General, the UN needs an open and clear conflict of interest policy and a conflict of interest practice. For those multinationals who are causes of problems, who aggravate the global problems of inequality we need and you as Head of the United Nations need to separate the United Nations from that process. They should not be invited to attend meetings. They should not be allowed to make statements. In the climate area, those who are continuing to extract natural resources from the ground where they should stay…we have taken too much of carbon out of the ground. If we're going to meet the Paris Accord, they should have no role entering the United Nations. I'd also say to the Secretary General that he needs to establish a much bigger office to support civil society. At the moment, the UN support for civil society organization institutional support is about two people. That is absolutely the wrong level of engagement with the wider elements of civil society. And the last thing I would probably say to the Secretary-General is that the UN is very proud of having developed a system of internal governance that protects the weaker countries, the smaller countries, that their views can be heard in the intergovernmental governance process. The Secretary-General should not engage with multi stakeholder groups who do not have a rulebook that allows for the protection of smaller members of the group, that does not have a way to appeal and challenge decisions that does not require public disclosure of their finances, all of those characteristics of multistakeholderism. The Secretary General should have and the UN should have no relationship with those who are not interested in protecting core concepts of democracy

LYNN FRIES: We have to leave it there. Special thanks to our guest contributor, Harris Gleckman, and thank you for watching and for your interest in this segment of GPEnewsdocs coming to you from Geneva, Switzerland.

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