Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Should the UN Global Compact have sharper teeth?

Do those teeth need sharpening? Georg Kell, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact. 
The emergence of multi-stakeholder initiatives and voluntary corporate accountability programs for business have become some of the most interesting aspects of the CSR debate over the past decade or so. The largest of these in terms of company participation is the UN Global Compact, which now has some 10,000 participants, including over 7,000 businesses in 145 countries. By any account, that's a huge number. It's also a huge experiment given that there's never been anything quite like it before or since.

A few years ago we were the official bloggers of the Global Compact's 10 year anniversary, "Leaders Summit" which took place in New York in 2010. At that time we made various comments on the successes, failures and future challenges of the compact. As geeky academics, we are now eagerly awaiting the publication of the special issue of the journal Business & Society (which we are on the board of), entitled "The UN Global Compact: Retrospect and Prospect", edited by our friends and colleagues Andreas Rasche, Sandra Waddock and Malcolm McIntosh. They've put together a nice collection of academic papers on the subject, including a terrific introduction from the editors, and the special issue really demonstrates how seriously the academic community is taking the Global Compact.

Some of the big questions for researchers interested in the Compact - and indeed for many in the practitioner community - are about its governance and effectiveness. Does membership have an effect of corporate social performance? What governance system would be most effective to ensure corporate accountability? And perhaps the biggest question of them all - should the compact, as its critics maintain, have more regulatory power to discipline companies that don't live up to its principles, or is it more important to have a low bar for participation so as to engage the maximum amount of companies?

Answers to these questions are slowly beginning to emerge from the research community. Over at the aptly named Global Compact Critics website, a colleague of ours at the University of Zurich, Patrick Haack, has written a guest blog based on his research that reaches a conclusion which the compact critics love to hate. Yes, you guessed it, Haack recommends that rather than kicking out any "bad apples" in the compact, the UN should keep them in. Paradoxically, this is the way to build legitimacy according to Haack: “a “soft” and consensual approach is in the best interest of the Global Compact and transnational governance more generally... "keeping bad apples” and providing them with time and resources to overcome organizational barriers may prove more fruitful than unconditional punishment."

Provocative stuff. Unsurprisingly, the critics have hit back - in the form of a post from MariĆ«tte van Huijstee from SOMO, the organization behind the Global Compact Critics website. "By keeping bad apples in at all times," she argues, "the initiative loses its legitimacy and appeal for other companies in the long run." This is no arcane academic argument; it goes to the heart of how to build an effective mechanism for corporate accountability and ensure that companies act in the best interests of society.  But the answers are not obvious and the need for good research is critical.Some of what has emerged so far has shown that the diffusion of the Compact has been dampened by the effect of critical NGOs who have voiced concerned over its "weak" inclusive approach - meaning that companies from countries with strong networks of international NGOs have been less likely to sign up than those from countries outside of these networks. This helps to explain why the Compact has been particularly successful at getting traction in developing countries, even whilst developed country NGO criticize its lack of teeth.

So the debate will no doubt rage on. But soon, we hope, we'll have the research to show what the real advantages and disadvantages are of the Compact - and whether its weakness is, as Haack contests, one of its main strengths.

Photo by djevents. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

1 comment:

  1. I'm all for keeping the bad apples in the bushel. I have only ever seen sustainable change at any level come about when there is consistent exposure to the change that is good. By excluding those you want to influence, you run the risk of losing them forever. Someone needs to get over the 'club' mentality. It can be so limiting. Unless, of course, it becomes 'the club which accepts its responsibility to influence change for good'.

    Cathie Guthrie

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