Corporations have stepped beyond lobbying governments. They are integrating in policy-making at the national and international levels. From agriculture to technology, decisions historically made by governments are increasingly made by secretive unaccountable bodies run by corporations.
LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries, producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. Today I’m joined by Nick Buxton. He’s going to be giving us some big picture of context on The Great Reset, a World Economic Forum initiative to reset the world system of global governance.
A worldwide movement crossing not only borders but all walks of life from peasant farmers to techies is fighting against this initiative on the grounds that it represents a major threat to democracy. Key voices from the health, food, education, indigenous peoples and high tech movements explained why in The Great Take Over: How we fight the Davos capture of global governance , a recent webinar hosted by the Transnational Institute.
Today’s guest, Nick Buxton is a publications editor and future labs coordinator at the Transnational Institute. He is the founder and chief editor of TNI’s flagship State of Power report. Welcome. Nick.
NICK BUXTON: Thank you very much, Lynn.
FRIES : The Transnational Institute was co-organizer of The Great Takeover webinar. So what is it that you’re mobilizing against by opposing this Great Reset Initiative.
BUXTON: What we’re really concerned about is really that this initiative by the World Economic Forum actually looks to entrench the power of those most responsible for the crises we’re facing. In many ways, it’s a trick. It’s a sleight of hand to make sure that things continue as they are; to continue the same.
That will create more of these crises, more of these pandemics, will deepen the climate crisis, which will deepen inequality. It’s not a Great Reset at all. It’s a Great Corporate Takeover. And that’s what we were trying to draw attention to.
What we’ve been finding in recent years is that really there is something I would call it a kind of a global, silent coup d’état going on in terms of global governance. Most people don’t see it.
And people have become familiar with the way that corporations have far more influence and are being integrated into policymaking at a national level. They see that more in front of them. People see their services being privatized. They see the influence of the oil companies or the banking sector that has stopped actions such as regulation of banks or of dealing with a climate crisis.
What people don’t realize is a global level there has been something much more silent going on. Which is that their governance, which used to be by nations, is now increasingly being done by unaccountable bodies dominated by corporations. And part of the problem is that that has been happening in lots of different sectors but people haven’t been connecting the dots.
So what we’ve been trying to do in the last year is to talk with people in the health movement, for example; people involved in public education; people involved in the food sector; to say what is happening in your sector?
And what we found is that in each of these sectors, global decisions that used to be discussed by bodies such as the WHO or such as the Food and Agriculture Organization were increasingly done by these unaccountable bodies.
Just to give an example, we have now the global pandemic and one of the key bodies that is now making the decisions is a facility called COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Alliance]. You’d have thought global health should be run by the World Health Organization. It is accountable to the United Nations. It has a system of accountability.
Well, what’s actually happening is that the World Health Organization is just one of a few partners but really [COVAX] it’s being controlled by corporations and corporate interests. In this case it is GAVI [The Vaccine Alliance formerly known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunization] and CEPI [The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations].
And they are both bodies, which don’t have a system of accountability. Where it’s not clear who chose them; who they’re accountable to; or how they can be held to account. And what we do see is that there’s a lot of corporate influence in each of these bodies.
What this webinar was about was about bringing all these sectors together who have seen this silent coup d’état going on in their own sector to map it out. And so one of the things that you’ll see in the webinar is this mapping of the different sectors who are seeing this going on.
And the idea is just to give a global picture that this is something happening. We’ve had more than a hundred of these, they are called multi-stakeholder bodies come into the fore in the last 20 years.
And there’s been very little kind of taking note of that and taking stock of what’s emerging. And what’s emerging is this silent global coup d’état.
FRIES: So what you find then in the big picture that you’re getting is that a global coup d’état has been silently emerging. And at the heart of it is a move towards the multi-stakeholder model of global governance. And that this is the model that is the path and mechanism of a corporate hijack of global and national governance structures.
The World Economic Forum agenda fits into all this, as the WEF of course is one of the world’s most powerful multi-stakeholder institutions. So Nick in explaining what all this means, let’s start with some of your thoughts on the history of how we got here.
BUXTON: I think what we had in the nineties was the kind of height of neoliberalism. We had the increasing role of corporations and the deregulation of the state. And it really starts to come through in 2000 with the Global Compact where the UN invited in corporations.
And the idea was that we’re going to need to involve corporations; one because we will need private finance became the kind of mantra. So we need to involve corporations, they can be part of the solution. So it was partly finance. It was partly the withdrawal of states from kind of global cooperation. And that started to invite corporations into global governance where corporations were increasingly being invited into these kinds of bodies.
That dovetailed with this whole movement called Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR]. That corporations weren’t just profit-making vehicles. They could be socially responsible actors. And so increasingly corporations were pitching themselves as not just corporate entities but as global citizens.
And one of the key vehicles for that, of course, was the World Economic Forum, which has really been articulating through Klaus Schwab and through their whole work this idea that corporations should firstly be socially responsible. And secondly as part of that, they should be treated as social entities and should be integrated into governance and decision-making.
That we needed to move from what was considered a kind of antiquated state led multilateral approach to a much more agile governance system. And this is again the kind of mantra coming in of the private sector being efficient. That the private sector if you involve them in decision-making, you would get more faster decisions. You’d get agile decisions. You’d get better decisions. So this all really came together. And in some ways, it’s even being consolidated even further.
The irony is that as you’ve had nationalists governments come to power, the kind of Trump America first in the world or Modi India first, they articulate a nationalist agenda but they haven’t actually questioned the role of corporations in any way whatsoever.
And as they’ve retreated from multilateral forums like the United Nations, they’ve left a vacuum that corporations have been able to fill. Corporations now say: we can be the global actors. We can be the responsible actors. We’re the ones who can tackle the big crises we face such as inequality, such as climate change, such as the pandemic.
So really we’ve had this convergence of forces coming together where as States have retreated corporations have filled the vacuum.
FRIES : You noted earlier the World Economic Forum was one of the key vehicles for these ideas. The WEF also went big in filling that vacuum that you’re talking about. TNI reported the WEF Global Redesign Initiative stretching back to 2009 created something like 40 Global Agenda Councils and industry-sector bodies. So in the sphere of global governance, the WEF created space for corporate actors across the full spectrum of governance issues from cybersecurity to climate change you name it.
BUXTON: So yeah, the Global Redesign Initiative was one of the first initiatives that the World Economic Forum launched in the wake of the financial crisis. And their idea was that we needed to replace what was an inefficient multilateral system that was not able to solve problems with a new form of things. So they were saying instead of multilateralism where nations make decisions in global cooperation we needed a multi-stakeholder approach, which would bring together all the interested parties in small groups to make decisions.
And the Global Redesign Initiative was really a model of that. They were trying to say: okay, how do we resolve issues such as the governance of the digital economy. And their answer to it is we bring the Big Tech companies together, we bring the governments together, and we bring a few civil society players and we’ll work out a system that makes sense. And so you had a similar thing going on in all these other Redesign Councils. Really their models for how they think governance should be done.
And some of them have not just become models. They’ve actually become the real thing. So many of the multi-stakeholder initiatives we’ve seen emerge today have emerged out of some of these councils. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness [CEPI The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations] one of the key ones leading COVAX right now in response to the pandemic was launched at the World Economic Forum. So the World Economic Forum is now becoming a launch pad for many of these multi-stakeholder bodies
FRIES : We should also note the World Economic Forum is a very well funded launch pad. As power points from The Great Takeover webinar put it corporations do not pay tax but “donate” to multi-stakeholder institutions. The WEF of course is funded by powerful corporations and business leaders. The power points also noted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is of the main funders of multi-stakeholder institutions.
In contrast, multilateral institutions are being defunded on the back of falling corporate tax revenues for nation states. Given it depends on government donors, the UN regular budget that is the backbone of funding for the 1 country 1 vote multilateral processes of intergovernmental cooperation and decision making has taken a big hit. Perhaps you could comment on some big picture implications on this kind of changing dynamic that’s going on between corporate actors and nation states.
BUXTON: Yeah. Yeah, I think what we’re seeing is that as gradually the corporations have become more powerful they have weakened the capacity of the state. So they have reduced the tax basis. You know most corporations have seen corporate tax rates fall dramatically and even more trillions are now siphoned away in tax havens.
So the entire corporate tax base, which used to play a much bigger role in state funding, has reduced. At the same time their influence over policies which benefit corporations has increased. So they’re reducing the regulations that were on them. They’re reducing all the costs that used to be imposed on them [inaud]. So you’ve had a weakening of the state and a strengthening of corporations.
And what’s happened at a global governance level is that they have also moved not just from influencing dramatically through their power, their economic power, political decision-making, but initiating this global governance thing is the next step forward. Because they’re not just saying that: we want to be considered and we will lobby to have our position heard. They’re saying we want to actually be part of the decision-making bodies themselves.
And the classic again is if we look at the pandemic with COVAX is that…. I looked actually at just at the board of GAVI the Global Alliance for Vaccines. If you look at the body the Board is dominated firstly by big pharmaceutical companies. Secondly, you have some nations and some civil society representatives but you have far more, interestingly, a large number of the Board are financiers. They come from the finance sector. They come from big banks.
I don’t know what they have to do with public health. And the WHO is just one of the players. So it’s suddenly over-crowded by others who have no public health representation. They’re being dominated by finance and pharmaceutical companies starting to really shape and guide decision-making.
And on the finance side, of course, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now the big player in many of these things. And it’s not just donating; it’s also involved now in shaping policy. So those who give money in a philanthropic way, no matter how they earn that money or no matter what their remit is and who they’re accountable to, they’re only accountable to that to Bill and Melinda Gates ultimately, are now part of the decision making process as well.
And this has become so normalized that there seems to be very little questioning of it: we will bring together these players.
Now who chose them? Who chose this body to come together? Who’s it accountable to?
There was a British parliamentarian called Tony Benn. He says, if you want to understand democracy, you need to ask five questions: What power do you have? Who did you get it from? Whose interests do you serve to? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?
If you look at a body such as COVAX: where did they get the power from?
They just self convened. They just brought together a group of powerful actors. They will make a token effort to involve one or two civil society representatives, but the power very much lies with the corporations and with the financiers. Those who are financing it. And it’s not accountable. They chose their body.
The interests are very clear who it serves. It serves the pharmaceutical companies. They will, of course do certain things within the remit. But ultimately they will not undermine their business model. Even if that business model is getting in the way of an effective response to the pandemic.
We can’t get rid of them because we never chose them in the first place.
So it fails really the very fundamental principles of democracy. And yet it’s now being normalized as this is the way that global governance should happen.
FRIES: Nick comment briefly on an agreement that was quite a milestone in this process of normalization of multistakeholderism as the way global governance should happen. I am thinking of the strategic partnership agreement signed by the Office of the UN Secretary General with the WEF in 2019. So what’s some background on that and your response to that UN WEF Agreement?
BUXTON: Well, the World Economic Forum has been advocating this model of multistakeholder capitalism to replace multi-lateralism for a long time. And they have been gradually I would say kind of setting up parallel bodies. These multi-stakeholder bodies to make decisions on major issues of global governance, whether it’s the digital economy, or whether it’s how to respond to a pandemic. And so they’ve been advancing in this model alongside the UN for some time.
But what was really concerning to us is that they’re starting to increasingly engage with the UN and start to push this model within the United Nations. And the classic example was this strategic partnership which was signed in I believe June of 2019. I don’t think it went even in front of the [UN] General Assembly.
So it wasn’t discussed amongst the members [UN Member States]. It was a decision by the Secretariat of the UN without any at least any formal systems of accountability to sign a deal with the World Economic Forum that would essentially start to involve World Economic Forum staff within the departments of the UN.
They would become so-called kind of whisper advisors. The World Economic Forum would start to have its staff mingling with UN staff and starting to make decisions. And there was no system of accountability. There was no system of consulting more widely.
And we know the World Economic Forum is a business forum. If you look at its Board, it’s completely controlled by some of the most wealthy and powerful corporations. And many of those corporations are responsible for many of the crises we face. And yet here they were being open- armed welcomed into the United Nations to play a very significant role.
And we protested that. We said that this is not a way to solve global problems. To involve those who have been actually responsible for the crisis to resolve it will only lead to solutions that are either ineffective or actually deepen the crises we face.
We understand why the UN is doing it. It’s because of this lack of national support. It’s because of the defunding. They’re looking to kind of survive as an organization. And they’re going to the most powerful players in the world which are the corporations.
But what they’re going to end up doing is ultimately undermining the United Nations. It will actually damage the United Nations because it will remove all of the democratic legitimacy that it currently has.
We desperately need global collaboration and cooperation but it must be based on public and democratic systems of governance not unaccountable secretive forms of governance dominated by corporations.
FRIES: So that’s pretty clear. You oppose multi-stakeholderism because it’s an unaccountable secretive form of governance dominated by corporations. As well as being unaccountable, the multi-stakeholder model is a voluntary and a market based approach to problem solving. Comment on how that also fits into why you oppose multi-stakeholderism.
BUXTON: Yeah. The solutions they’re looking for are volunteeristic where you can come in or out and they’re market-based. So they will never actually challenge the business model as it is.
Ultimately what happens is that they make decisions, which are not binding and actually force actors like corporations to do certain things. They’re based entirely on this voluntary model.
I t’s a kind of a take it or leave it governance where you can do things that look good for annual report, but don’t actually change the way you actually operate. And so ultimately they won’t resolve the crises that we’re facing.
So it’s not just that they’re unaccountable but they are ultimately very ineffective.
So if we look at the climate crisis, for example, it will say the only way that we can deal with the climate crisis is market solutions. Even if we know that really the scale of the climate crisis, the urgency, and the timing requires us to take much more drastic solutions which will be state- led; which will require corporations to reduce emissions that will start to transform economies. That will have to be taken; these kinds of public decisions.
We’re ignoring that entirely for a model, which is based on kind of market incentives, which really do nothing to change the business model that has created the climate crisis.
FRIES: OK. So that goes a long way in explaining why you say the World Economic Forum Great Reset Initiative is no reset at all. Nick, briefly touch on some of your further observations. Like why as the multi-stakeholder model is based on market solutions, when push comes to shove, the profit motive will always win out under this approach to global governance.
BUXTON: Yeah. Absolutely. Corporations will accept market solutions, which give them the power to really control the pace of change. And so you’ll see that they’re very happy to produce these corporate social responsibility reports, but they will fight tooth and nail against any regulation, which actually enforces social and environmental goals.
And they will fight on an international level to have trade rules to actually prevent States imposing social and environmental goals. So, there’s very much an approach where they’re willing to have greenwash. They’re willing to have the propaganda around social environmental goals but they will absolutely oppose any rules that would actually control their environmental and social impacts.
They do not want anything, which actually requires regulation, and impacts, which will actually force them to do certain changes. They want their changes to be very much ones that they control and which they shape. And ultimately that they can ditch at the moment it starts to challenge the profits that they want to make.
FRIES: Let’s turn now to the coalition fighting for a democratic reset on global governance. So a future where decision making over the governance of global commons like for example food, water, health and the internet is done in the public interest.
I see this coalition put together resources and it’s posted on your website. You’re in the nexus of all this. So this time around in the wake of the COVID pandemic, what’s your read on the situation of peoples versus corporate power?
BUXTON: This global coup d’état that’s been going on silently in so many different sectors has been advancing because there hasn’t been enough information and knowledge about it. And also people haven’t been connecting the dots to see this is happening in every sector.
So what’s really important this year and I think it’s particularly important in the wake of the pandemic is that so many movements are coming together. The People’s Health Movement has come together; a lot of groups involved in food sovereignty, the trade union sector is coming together. They’re all saying: this is not in our name.
And of course, these are all groups that you’ll never see in a multi-stakeholder initiative. Whenever they do have civil society partners, they don’t involve people in the front lines. You won’t find one health union worker in the COVAX Initiative. You won’t have public health people really represented. So these movements are now starting to come together to say that we don’t want this.
And one of the things we did was launch this letter. It’s an Open Letter and its really alerting people to what’s going on. It’s saying that we’re facing this in so many different sectors.
The UN is opening the door, the UN Secretariat I should say is opening the door wide open to the World Economic Forum, which is the key body advance in multi-stakeholderism. And it’s changing governance as we know it and it has no systems of accountability or justice embedded in it.
And these movements are now coming together to say: we’re opposing this. We’re uniting our forces. And we’re going to fight back against this.
And we know more than ever before with the pandemic that nationalist solutions to the global crisis will not work. We need global cooperation. We need global collaboration.
But if we hand over all that decision-making to the pharmaceutical companies, for example, we won’t be dealing with real issues such as trade protections and TRIPS. And patents and everything that really benefits pharmaceutical companies and don’t advance public health. Because they are in control of the process; they won’t allow things that affect their profits.
So we need global solutions but the corporations, which actually worsen and deepen the crisis we face, cannot lead them.
FRIES: So as we close, I just wanted to play a clip of a comment you made back in 2015 about a book you had co-edited titled The Secure and The Dispossessed .
I found a review of the book so relevant to our chat today. I just want to cite a few lines. It said:
Among the books that attempt to model the coming century. This one stands out for its sense of plausibility and danger. It examines several current trends in our responses to climate change, which if combined would result in a kind of oligarchic police state dedicated to extending capitalist hegemony.
This will not work, and yet powerful forces are advocating for it rather than reimagining and working for a more, just, resilient and democratic way forward. All the processes analyzed here are already happening now, making this book a crucial contribution to our cognitive mapping and our ability to form a better plan.
So Nick, in wrapping up briefly comment on that book and then I’ll play the clip
BUXTON: Yeah, back in 2011 we noticed a trend going on in terms of climate change where there was a lack of willingness to really tackle the climate crisis on the scale it needs and with the tools and instruments that it needs.
But there was increasingly plans by both the military and corporations for dealing with the impacts of climate change. And they very much looked at it in terms of how do we secure the wealth of those and secure those who already have power and wealth and what that would mean. So in the face of climate crisis, the solution was very much a security solution.
We’ve already seen really an increasing role of military and policing and security and a real process of militarization of responses to climate change. Most obviously in the area of the borders, we see border walls going up everywhere. The response to a crisis has been to kind of retreat behind fortifications no matter the consequences.
And so that’s really a trend that we see increasingly is that our response to climate adaptation by the richest countries is really to militarize our response to it. And that’s a real, as that quote you just read, that’s a real concern because it’s a kind of politics of the armed lifeboat. Where basically you rescue a few and then you have a gun trained on the rest.
And it’s both totally immoral and it’s also ultimately one that will sacrifice all of our humanity because we need to collaborate to respond to the climate crisis. We need to find solutions that protect the vulnerable. We cannot just keep building higher and higher walls against the consequences of our decisions. We need to actually start to tackle the root causes of those crises.
And that was very much a picture we started to paint back in 2015 with the launch of the book, The Secure and The Dispossessed . But if anything it’s more pertinent and more prescient than ever before.
FRIES: Nick Buxton, thank you.
BUXTON : Thanks.
Teaser photo credit: By Alexey M. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65398497