Internal Dissent at the U.N: Water Advisor vs. Global Compact

Here’s an interesting bit of muckraking, illustrating conflict, within the UN secretariat, regarding corporate social responsibilty. From Inner City Press: “UN Global Compact Chief Says Corporations Are Victims Too, Lashes Out at Critic”

While global publics question the ethics of business executives who ran their companies into the ground, sought taxpayer bailouts and then still seek year-end bonuses, the UN’s corporate social responsibility unit, the Global Compact, has little to nothing to say on the topic. In the past week, Inner City Press has asked both the director and honorary chairman of the Compact to speak to this question.

(The Global Compact is “is a [UN-based] strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.”)

The interesting bit of the story is about an apparent conflict within the UN: apparently Maude Barlow (Senior Advisor on Water Issues to the President of the General Assembly) has been critical of the Global Compact. According to an earlier story from the Inner City Press (see here), Barlow called the Global Compact “blue-washing” or “greenwashing.” (“Greenwashing” is a pejorative term derived from the term “whitewashing,” coined by environmental activists to describe efforts by corporations to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings. “Blue-washing” is apparently a parallel term referring to a company’s attempt to use affiliation with one or another projects of the blue-flagged U.N. as a way to buff its own image. [note: I’ve corrected my previous, erroneous explanation here].) Barlow said that the Global Compact wrapped “the United Nations…seal of approval around corporate behaviours that we don’t think always change.”

In response to a question (at a later press conference) about Barlow’s criticisms, Global Compact Executive Director, Georg Kell, defended his organization and questioned whether Barlow actually knew enough about the Compact to make a reasoned criticism. He also suggested that while advocacy — Barlow’s specialty — is welcome, it’s not enough:

In order to bring change about, you need different entry points, and advocacy is obviously one and we welcome advocacy. But I would argue that advocacy alone is not enough…unless you have a platform to translate, then, energies into solutions, you’re just in the advocacy domain and the compact is not in the advocacy domain. We are in the practical, pragmatic, solution-finding domain. [Transcribed from video by CM.]

(It’s important to note a couple of glitches in the Inner City Press’s reporting here: the analysis notes that “there are people who have looked into the Compact, and are nevertheless skeptical about its seriousness in holding corporations to account.” That’s true, but misleading: the Compact doesn’t pretend to be an enforcement agency. Holding corporations to account simply isn’t what they promise to do. Also, in his question (on video) to the President of the UN General Assembly, (Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann), mis-quotes Georg Kell. Kell (as you can see for yourself) never said he hadn’t heard of Barlow, and he didn’t question her expertise. He said he’d never met her, and said that as far as he knew she didn’t know much about the Global Compact’s operations.)

I don’t have an opinion on ‘Barlow v. Global Compact,’ but at the very least it’s interesting to see. Perhaps it’s even encouraging. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the UN’s tent is big enough to encompass the range of views expressed in this story.

3 comments so far

  1. Bart on

    Dear Chris,This is indeed an interesting debate. Although Inner City Press may have a different style of reporting than most of the reporters at the UN Headquarters, it has become a very important outlet for whistleblowers inside the UN. We also blogged about Ms. Barlow’s criticism of the Global Compact: wishes,Bart

  2. Bart on

    Just one more thing:“Bluewashing” is not a term related to corporate water management. It refers to companies that engage in partnerships with the UN solely for PR reasons. The word is even on Wikipedia: see Best wishes,Bart

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Bart:Thanks for the comments. I’ll fix my erroneous explanation of “blue-washing.”Regards,Chris.

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