Analysis: CBI tries to address 'exploiter' image

Corporations have been criticised for third world exploitation and excessive lobbying at previous World Trade Organisation events. Peter Simpson looks at the way UK business has been lobbying at this year's WTO meeting in Cancun, which eventually broke down this week

The incoming director-general designate of the World Trade Organisation, Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, shocked international governments and businesses a year ago, by saying he wanted tough new rules to clamp down on lobbying by multinational companies trying to influence the world's most powerful trading system.

He said he wanted a code of conduct to police multinational firms and their extensive use of lobbying.

Many balked at the prospect of regulation, and Panitchpakdi noted at the time that his ethical ideal was 'something that I'm not getting support for from countries around the world, particularly some advanced countries'.

No wonder. Many of the world's multinationals had become used to operating systemic influence at every level of WTO decision-making. In some countries, such as the US and Japan, industry is invited onto formal consultative committees to help formulate national trade policies. Elsewhere, influence is highly complex and harder to track.

The anti-globalisation movement, ethical trade organisations and global charities and aid groups welcomed his plans.

But with this year's WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico, lobbying was still largely unregulated and the bulk of British trade lobbying arrived in the shape of the CBI.

Naturally, the CBI was there to lobby for the interests of UK businesses, but was also seeking to use the event as a chance to address accusations of third world exploitation by its members.

CBI director-general Digby Jones, in Cancun to represent over 200,000 UK companies and at least 80 FTSE 100 organisations, said on his arrival: 'Now is the time for action if the goal of free and fair trade to the benefit of developing and developed countries is not to be jeopardised.'

CBI director of international competitiveness Andy Scott explains further.

'We aim to convince that fair trade means a win-win situation for all.

We aim to give a balanced view of the arguments to WTO members.

'The business voice has to be heard if we are to convince the WTO and all concerned that business is needed to help poor countries develop.

There's good and bad profit. Profit is part of business, and business is the best way for poorer countries to develop.'

But many NGOs say that these words ring hollow, adding that the real commitment is not a fairer global market but profit.

'It (the CBI) tries to find a gloss to put over the fact that it perpetuates an unfair trading system. The real lobbying is done behind closed doors, and is so influential that it becomes all powerful,' says Friends of the Earth PRO for the UK Matt Philips.

He adds that the CBI, like other lobbing groups from the West, use soft lobbying techniques at smaller forums. The CBI, for instance, lobbies Chancellor Gordon Brown before each Budget, claiming British business need to make more profit, explains Philips.

He adds: 'Lobbying is essential to the CBI. It represents big UK and global corporations and has direct links into governments and markets.

And it is there to serve the shareholdings of its members.

'It uses tried and tested lobbying techniques at all the big lobbying events such as the WTO conference and World Economic Forum. Public talk of ethics and fair and free trade is pure PR.'

If, as the CBI suggests, it is a key voice in calls for fair trade then the breakdown in talks would suggest a failure in its lobbying efforts.

But if, as Friends of the Earth suggests, the tears for the state of poverty in the developing world are of the crocodile variety then the lobbying behind closed doors, which it alleges takes place, has been a success.

With subsidies remaining and fair trade far from reality, it is undoubtedly the companies of the developed world that are to gain financially from the status quo. Whether the profit is good or bad, it is still profit.

But questions still remain about just how open the CBI is being about its lobbying activity.

CBI members are still not listed on the organisation's website, and obtaining a definitive who's who is difficult. 'We do not give names of members,' a CBI spokesperson says.

And when contacted about their lobbying activity at the WTO a number of firms, including Shell and Monsanto, refused to comment, with the former instead referring media back to the CBI.

While it may be possible that the CBI could yet emerge as the champion of the fair trade lobby at future WTO summits, it is still a long way from answering Dr Panitchpakdi's hopes of effectively policing lobbying and making the process more transparent.

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