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June 28, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: Book Review--Building Partnerships
    by William Baue

A new book outlines the benefits and challenges of cooperation between the private sector and the United Nations.


The private sector will contribute significantly to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as the Johannesburg Summit or Rio + 10. Currently, more than 30 trade and industry associations are preparing sector reports on more than 20 industries, and corporate representatives are compiling the largest collection to date of information concerning building partnerships for sustainable development.

However, bridging the divide between the private sector and the United Nations does not occur devoid of tension. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) accuse corporations of using the summit to "greenwash." Greenwash is putting a positive public relations spin on a company's environmental performance, when in reality the company is not performing well at all. Worse yet, business stands charged with trying to co-opt the summit's agenda by pushing the profit motive over environmental and social imperatives.

Amidst this controversy, the United Nations Department of Public Information and the UN Global Compact, in conjunction with the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF), announced the publication of a new book addressing this divide. Entitled Building Partnerships: Cooperation between the United Nations system and the private sector, the book is based on a report that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented to the UN General Assembly's fifty-sixth session last November. The book adds two chapters offering solutions as well as "agendas for action."

"[A]s we enter the twenty-first century, a common agenda is emerging between the UN and business," writes author of the book Jane Nelson, the director of policy and research for the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum. "Under such circumstances, it makes sense for the United Nations, companies and business associations to renew and reinvigorate their existing forms of cooperation and to experiment with new types of cooperation."

Building Partnerships is not a relaxing beach read. Indeed, Ms. Nelson did not structure the book for cover-to-cover reading; instead, she organized it into segmented sections with bulleted points to ease digestion. Perhaps the most useful components are boxes, highlighted in green, which condense large masses of information into concise summaries.

For example, Ms. Nelson devotes a two-page spread to the "Joburg Summit," as she calls it. In the box she explains how the business sector dealt with the South African government's request for corporate contributions to cover the estimated US$60 million in core costs for the summit.

"It is inappropriate for business to fund the core costs of a United Nations Summit," said Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chair of Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), a network of business organizations organized by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). "We shall land up with accusations that business is trying to influence the process."

BASD instead compiled a list of budget relief items that businesses could underwrite. In addition, businesses were given the option to support "Legacy Projects" in Africa to leave a concrete heritage of the summit.

Ms. Nelson cites more than 150 examples of collaborations between the private and public sectors, as well as other innovative solutions to pressing problems. For example, she discusses socially responsible investors as an underutilized source for funding investment in developing countries. She cites the Calvert Group and the Australia-based AMP Group as some of the few fund managers offering SRI funds with a focus on selected emerging markets.

Building Partnerships lists solutions to global and regional problems by creating synergies between the private and public sectors. The list is based on the United Nations Millennium Declaration, with particular emphasis on areas such as "development and poverty eradication" and "protecting our common environment." The Millenium Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2000 and identifies the fundamental values necessary for international relations in the 21st century.

The text concludes by replacing the green boxes with blue boxes that contain the "agendas for action." Four different agendas address four separate constituencies: companies; trade, industry, and business associations; United Nations bodies; and governments.

Building Partnerships proceeds from the assumption that it is neither practical nor wise to build a wall between the public and private sectors, and ends with a blueprint for bridging the two.


Building Partnerships: Cooperation between the United Nations system and the private sector by Jane Nelson. United Nations Department of Public Information, New York: 2002.

 

 
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