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Summit row over big business plans - Business in summit row

THE GUARDIAN, 27 August 2002 - Accusations that big business is hijacking the earth summit and pushing its own agenda of free trade and privatisation in developing countries overshadowed the first official day of the conference yesterday.

While Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, was formally opening the summit, and welcoming the 189 participating countries, a fierce debate was erupting over the role of multi-national companies in delivering aid.

So concerned was Mr Mbeki, chairman of the summit, about the dispute that he called key environment and development critics to a two-hour meeting to hear their views.

He had earlier in his opening speech referred to unsustainable nature of a society "characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty."

He said: "The tragic result of this is the avoidable increase in human misery and ecological degradation. It is as though we have decided to spurn what the human intellect tells us, the survival of the fittest only presages the destruction of all humanity." However, while welcoming his words, charities and pressure groups reacted angrily to the announcement of 192 partnerships involving big business in giving aid to developing countries.

The partnerships will see schemes involving water, sanitation and electricity provision being introduced but some only on the condition that public services are privitised to the benefit of big business.

Tony Blair is a keen advocate of the schemes and the UK is involved in 20 of them. British officials were defending them yesterday saying that they were in addition to existing aid not a substitute. Tony Juniper, director designate of Friends of the Earth, and one of those summoned to meet Mr Mbeki, said: "We told him of our fears over the corporate takeover of the summit and he listened. But how this will weigh against the might of the US and big business is anyone's guess."

Mr Juniper said the crux of the argument was that the free market had not protected the environment or eradicated poverty and would not do so in the future unless there were robust international treaties regulating industry.

These partnership agreements must not be used as camouflage for introducing dubious technologies to developing countries which did not want them, he said.

Cherry Farrow, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "Our concern is that these partnerships do not divert funding from existing local schemes and must not be seen as a substitute for proper international action at government level."

However, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former chairman of Shell, who is chairman of the Business Council for Sustainable Development, and whose members are the architects of many of the agreements, said big business was being misrepresented.

"There is a great deal of mutual distrust, which we have to get over. We believe in good international governance for issues like climate change and trade. It is a myth that we are not in favour of regulation," he said.

Another of the concerns of environmental organisations is the involvement of groups like Monsanto and McDonald's.

A partnership between McDonald's and Unicef, the UN children's fund, involves creating a world day for children in which the company will donate money to the fund for each burger eaten by a child.

John Hilary, trade policy adviser for Save the Children, said "It is a sad day to see a UN body linked to a company which sells junk food."

He also said there was a possibility of a conflict of interest in, for example, vaccination programmes.

A company might wish to push a new vaccine for a not particularly serious illness and divert resources and attention away from the more serious tasks of tackling polio, measles and TB.

Lord Holme, from the International Chamber of Commerce, who is Sir Mark's vice-chairman, said: "Many businessmen believe that if we turned up in white sheets and haloes we would still be the enemy. We must try to get beyond the cycle of recrimination." He believed that 75% of big business in Europe and 50% in the US had accepted a social and environmental role.

Bjorn Stigson, a Swiss businessman, said Monsanto was one of 160 corporate members but had not put forward any partnership scheme. "Companies are part of society, we can only succeed if society is stable, and so it is in our long term interests to keep it that way."


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