Gordon Brown, British prime minister, on Tuesday unveiled a “moral” alliance of leaders of governments and multinationals to tackle global poverty, telling the United Nations that globalisation could be a force for justice.
Many of the corporations in effect endorsed by the new leader through inclusion in his initiative have come under fire from pressure groups and Labour activists back home in the UK.
The heads of more than 20 companies on Tuesday signed up to a statement calling for “urgent action” to help the developing world. They included Riley Bechtel of Bechtel Corporation, which has come under intense media scrutiny over its lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq, and Lee Scott of Walmart Stores, which has aroused anger among Labour grassroots for its non-unionised workforce.
Other signatories to the US-dominated list included Bill Gates of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt of Google, Jeff Immelt of GE, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and Arun Sarin of Vodafone.
“I want to summon into existence the greatest coalition of conscience in pursuit of the greatest of causes,” the prime minister, whose father was a Scottish church minister, told the UN. “When conscience is joined to conscience, moral force to moral force – think how much our power to do good can achieve.”
But some campaigners questioned what the new partnership would actually achieve. “One should welcome any turning of companies towards the path of pursuing some higher moral purpose but not a great deal seems to have resulted from all the other initiatives of this nature – and there are a lot,” Jeremy Carver, a board member of the anti-corruption campaigning group Transparency International UK, told the FT.
The prime minister’s aim is to galvanise political, corporate and popular support to revive attempts to meet the flagging millennium development goals – ambitious UN targets to halve world poverty by 2015 – agreed seven years ago. Mr Brown said it was clear the goals, which include a commitment to halving world poverty, would not be met unless “emergency action” was taken. “It is already clear that our pace is too slow, our direction too uncertain, our vision at risk,” he said.
The declaration – agreed by 14 world leaders, including President George W Bush and Mr Brown, as well as the business leaders – calls for a UN meeting to be convened next years and binds the signatories to “commit to action,” without specifying that action.
Aides travelling with the prime minister to New York denied the new alliance was just a dramatic call to hold a meeting. “This is a big deal. It’s the beginning of a huge campaign,” an official insisted. “I don’t think this is a talking shop … it’s a call to arms.”
Shortly after his Camp David summit with Mr Bush on Monday, Mr Brown met Bill Clinton, the former US president who now spends a lot of time tackling poverty and disease in the developing world. The talks with Mr Clinton at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where Mr Brown stayed on Monday night, were focused on talking poverty, aides said. But the meeting with a prominent Democrat, so shortly after the high-profile encounter with the president, is unlikely to please the White House.