Are Corporations Colonizing the UN?

One of the UN’s challenges in the coming months is to ensure that the new global development agenda –the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) –- singles out the best priorities to guide trillions of development dollars over the next fifteen years.

One priority, as recently reported by The Guardian, concerns the role of businesses in solving poverty. Paloma Durán, head of the UN’s Sustainable Development Fund, explained why the UN is bent on freeing up some seats for corporations at the development table over the next fifteen years. According to Durán, it’s not just about attracting their cash to finance the implementation of the SDGs; the UN wants the corporate sector to get involved in every stage of development; from policy creation to the implementation (and undoubtedly, albeit not mentioned, evaluation) of programs. Durán’s wish to grant businesses more power in the SDGs follows leadership by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who has expressed his support for private sector partnerships many times, as early as 2007. Evidence of this trend can be found in recently released UN documents like this, this, this and this.

Corporations, these texts tell us, have come to realize that promoting global equality is in their own interest and is also ‘the right thing’ to do. One way to tap this partnership potential, the logic goes, is to engage corporations more closely in training and educating people who live in poverty, particularly those who are young and unemployed. In other words, the route to equality for low-income youth is to fuel the dominant capitalist market.

The logic undergirding this call for business-focused education initiatives is that to fight poverty and youth unemployment, young people need skills to either find jobs in the private sector or become self-sufficient entrepreneurs. It’s not a new idea. Corporate partnerships with educational ministries and institutions have proliferated over the past few years. Examples are Pricewater House Cooper’s program to integrate financial literacy and entrepreneurship in Belize’s public school curriculum and JP.Morgan’s partnerships with Education Ministries in Saudi-Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and Bahrain. According to this book, the World Economic Forum, The World Bank and consulting corporations such as Booz Allen and McKinsey are also working with educational institutions to make curricula more business-friendly. Financial literacy and entrepreneurship training programs, similarly envisioned as cures for unemployment, have bourgeoned. Some examples are the US Government’s Young African Leaders Program, the World Bank’s Youth Entrepreneurship Programs, the ILO’s Women Entrepreneurship Programme, Nike’s Girl Effect programs , Mastercard’s financial literacy programs and IPA’s savings classes in Uganda.

All of these programs operate with the same conviction: that poor young people are capable of making the system work for them (without, say, expecting support, entitlements, accountability or public sector jobs from their governments), if they only learn how to save, access credit and connect themselves with financial institutions.

Now, apart from the fact that saving skills are rather futile without an income, and credit should only be encouraged with some sort of governmental safety net, the UN is right; financial literacy, credit, and entrepreneurial trainings hold transformative potential for those who want to pursue business. (Nevermind those young African entrepreneurs who –mistaken for illegal immigrants- were blocked from attending Silicon Valley conferences.)

But young people should also have the option to learn a more critical type of literacy (proposed by education scholars such as Chris Arthur) that would enable them to reflect on the current economic system and global production and trade relations more broadly. What current business-led education efforts promote are not just skills, but also ideology; the neo-liberal belief system (some call it market fundamentalism) that naturalizes capitalism, mystifies alternatives and renders all other professions or ambitions (especially those that may lead to questioning power norms and issues of justice) less relevant. If market-focused empowerment becomes the norm in development, who will want to learn about politics, research, art – or find out why their countries are poor in the first place?

Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld writes about feminisms, inequalities, multinational corporations and economic justice; sometimes in Dutch.

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