After a lengthy process of consultation and deliberation, talks over the post-2015 sustainable development agenda are now moving into the cut and thrust of practical negotiation. As the process enters this more overtly political phase, there is a very real threat that the voice of powerful actors, especially those from the private sector, may drown out global civil society's demands for a human rights-based framework, and with it the possibility of a genuinely transformative agenda.
At key UN meetings last week in Helsinki and this week in New York, debates intensified on the role of public-private partnerships in the future sustainable development framework. Many governments, along with leading figures from the corporate sphere, are pushing hard for the private sector to be placed in the driving seat. In an age of deepening political and economic inequality worldwide, shifting the already-skewed balance of power even further towards such private actors would dramatically undermine the chances of a just and sustainable development agenda with human rights at its core, however.
Proponents of such partnerships argue that in a world of increasing resource scarcity it is precisely because of the immense capital they control that private companies should be enabled to drive the development process. Yet this standpoint fails to recognize the role that widespread corporate abuses have played in undermining efforts to meet development and human rights commitments. It also fails to take into account the game-changing potential of funding sustainable development through public resources that are currently untapped, in large part thanks to tax evasion, avoidance and competition driven by the very same profit-seeking institutions seeking to finance the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The experience of the last few decades suggests that the types of legal or policy incentives in the playbook for boosting an investor-friendly environment - tax holidays and exemptions, weakened labor and environmental protections, abusive stability and investment clauses, risk guarantees, increased lobbying influence on public policy, biased market liberalization and deregulation, especially in the financial sector - are precisely some of the same policy instruments which have undercut the foundations for sustainable development, driven deeper inequality and undermined human rights and the environment.
Without a clear-eyed assessment of the real risks of privatizing post-2015 and strong regulatory provisions to prevent them, corporate capture of the post-2015 process threatens the key human rights principle of accountability, which will be crucial to any development framework that is truly inclusive. In years gone by, transnational corporate power has all too often used its influence to avoid accountability rather than bolster it. What's more, rather than furthering the cause of just development and human rights, multinational corporations have frequently been involved in human rights abuses themselves. This has taken place both directly, through the activities of the extractive sector for example, and indirectly, through tax avoidance and policy manipulation.
With only months left before the new sustainable development framework is agreed, civil society is rallying to wrest control of the post-2015 process from the hands of corporations and return it to where it belongs - under the purview of capable and legitimate governments acting in transparent and democratic multilateral forums and in close partnership with civil society.
Throughout the past week, organizations from around the world urged UN member states to reaffirm their role as primary protectors and guarantors of human rights rather than mere enablers of private sector development. At both official sessions and civil society side events this week, advocates from Brazil, India, and Uruguay exposed the realities of power imbalances and conflicts of interests inherent in private sector-led development partnerships. In a statement to the Helsinki meeting issued by the Righting Finance Initiative, CESR and allies proposed a clear set of ex ante criteria to guarantee primacy of a public post-2015 process and to determine under what conditions private sector actors are fit to be post-2015 partners. These criteria should examine, at the least:
- whether the private actor has a history or current status of serious allegations of abusing human rights or the environment, including in their cross-border activities;
- whether the private actor has a proven track record (or the potential to) deliver on sustainable development commitments emerging from the post-2015 process;
- whether the private actor has previous involvement in acts of corruption with government officials;
- whether the private actor is fully transparent in its financial reporting and fully respecting existing tax responsibilities in all countries it operates, and not undermining sustainable development through tax avoidance;
- any conflicts of interest in order to eliminate potential private donors whose activities are antithetical or contradictory to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDG framework.
Governments moreover should commit to take immediate measures at all levels to ensure that businesses, at the very least, respect human rights and the environment, including by mandating independent, rigorous and periodic human rights and environmental impact assessments of large businesses.
Some governments are beginning to speak out against the growing corporate capture of the sustainable development agenda. Speaking at the civil society side-event, "Privatization of the post-2015 Development Agenda", co-sponsored by CESR in New York earlier this week, Sergio Rodrigues from Brazil's Permanent Mission to the UN warned that corporate influence over the post-2015 process could determine the future of the development agenda for years to come. He cautioned that this debate was at its core a battle over the future of the UN itself, and confirmed that his government would be among those pushing for stronger mechanisms of accountability and guidelines to regulate corporate engagement in development partnerships.
There is no doubt that the private sector does have an important role to play in driving economic dynamism and a healthy job market, but it is only when such profit-seeking activity is balanced by a strong and stable regulatory and accountability frameworks, on a level playing field and in equal partnership with the other actors involved, that we can realistically expect it to contribute to the world we all need.
Indeed, as many advocates reflect on the week past, it's an open question whether the UN as an institution could ever recover from the reputational shock of its new chief private financiers being simultaneously the chief violators of its most cherished principles.