Five years after urging business leaders to join his initiative to encourage good corporate practices as a response to the challenges brought on by globalization, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today called on executives to look again at ways their companies can help promote fair and far-reaching economic development around the world.
In the text of his address to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Secretary-General recalled that in 1999, globalization appeared to be almost a force of nature. Yet he felt obliged to warn back then that it would be only as sustainable as the social pillars on which it rested.
“I was concerned that unless global markets were embedded in shared values and responsible practices, the global economy would be fragile, and vulnerable to backlash from all the 'isms' of our post-cold-war world: protectionism, populism, nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.
At that time, he called for a Global Compact – to bring companies together with UN agencies, labour and civil society to support nine principles in the areas of human rights, labour and the environment. Today, there are more than 1,200 corporations from more than 70 countries involved from virtually all sectors of the economy.
“Yet much more can be accomplished – and it must,” he said, announcing that a Global Compact Summit will convene this June at UN Headquarters in New York “to reassess and reposition our efforts, aiming at even higher levels of achievement.”
In appealing for the support of the leaders gathered in Davos, Mr. Annan noted that the global economic and security environment “have become far less favourable to the maintenance of a stable, equitable and rule-based global order.” He cited dwindling investments in the developing world as well as the threat posed by international terrorism.
“This is a challenge for the United Nations,” he said. “But it compels the business community, too, to ask how to help put things right.”
Offering his own suggestions to reach this end, he stressed that corporations are key to the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight time-bound and measurable targets meant to reduce extreme poverty and hunger while cutting the rate of diseases such as AIDS.
He stressed that the value of achieving these aims cuts across communities. “The Goals are intended, first and foremost, to help people, but they can be good for business: first, because helping to build the infrastructure is an enormous business opportunity; and second, because, once it is built, business will find larger, eager markets in place.”
Noting that business has great potential to influence trade, he called for “a deal on agriculture that will help the poor” including the elimination of agricultural subsidies in the multilateral trading system.
He also stressed that companies can promote stability. “Business must find ways of reducing the contribution – sometime conscious, sometimes inadvertent – that firms make to fuelling conflicts, which are often related to factional competition for control of natural resources,” he said, adding that the private sector can help fight corruption as well.
Turning to the realm of global politics, the Secretary-General recalled the UN's founding principles. “States have a right to defend themselves – and each other – if attacked, but the first purpose of the United Nations itself, laid down in Article 1 [of the Charter], is 'to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.'”
“We must show that the United Nations is capable of fulfilling that purpose, not just for the most privileged members of the Organization who are currently – and understandably – preoccupied with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “The United Nations must also protection millions of our fellow men and women from the more familiar threats of poverty, hunger and deadly disease.”