If conscience alone could abolish world poverty, it would have happened many times over by now. Countless millions, especially in countries like Britain, have a sense of what is right and wrong. They are deeply concerned about disease, ill health, starvation and low wages in developing countries. They donate, they do voluntary work, they sign petitions, they go on marches, join vigils and pray for the poor of the world. And still the world is one of gross inequalities, at home and abroad. So Gordon Brown’s appeal to the conscience of the world in his “moral alliance” United Nations speech will make not a jot of difference because, unsurprisingly, it ignores the fundamental questions at stake which revolve around corporate power and profit.
Brown said: "I want to summon the greatest coalition of conscience in pursuit of the greatest of causes ... " He said he wanted to mobilise "people power", urging citizens to be "responsible consumers" and "active citizens". The fact that his “wake-up call” immediately won the backing of such progressive figures as George W. Bush and the bosses of 20 global corporations, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, tells its own story. They know a good thing when they see one and understand completely that having a conscience will not disturb the bottom line at all. In fact, it might do it some good.
The campaign, to be run through the UN, will be based on a new partnership between governments, the private sector and faith and pressure groups. The corporations and the UN have been travelling this road for some time. At the turn of the century the UN under Kofi Annan created a “global compact” with the major corporations. The UN website devoted to the compact explains: “Through the power of collective action, the Global Compact seeks to promote responsible corporate citizenship so that business can be part of the solution to the challenges of globalisation. In this way, the private sector – in partnership with other social actors – can help realise the secretary-general’s vision: a more sustainable and inclusive global economy.”
Annan may have had a dream in 2000 – in 2007 it resembles a nightmare. The UN’s millennium goals, as Brown had to admit, are as far from realisation as when they were set. The goal of halving infant mortality by 2015 won’t be met, if at all, until 2050, while the target of ensuring primary education for every child by 2015 would at best be achieved by 2100. Brown is clearly concerned lest people around the world for some unknown reason identify the corporations and the UN with broken promises and wants an “emergency” response. But his are just more empty words and semi-religious rhetoric at the expense of the world’s poor.
The fact remains that no amount of conscience will alter the fundamental nature of the causes of global inequalities. They are the outcome of a corporate-driven globalisation process, where the transnationals are in what they might describe as a “win-win situation going forward”. They can wring their hands, adopt a “corporate social responsibility” agenda and even give large sums of money, knowing that their profit-driven power is secure and given cover by the UN and its agencies. Overturning this power in order to allocate and use resources in the service of humanity as a whole is what we have a responsibility to place on the agenda throughout the world.
Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor