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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 13: Barricades and Boardrooms: A Contemporary History of the Corporate Accountability Movement.

7 Jun 2004

  • Author(s): Jem Bendell


Barricades and Boardrooms argues that such protests are one expression of a movement that is testing corporate power locally, nationally and globally, through a variety of mechanisms that involve worker, community, consumer and shareholder activism, as well as legal challenges and lobbying. Author Jem Bendell suggests it is better thought of as a counter-globalization movement, as it both counters the globalization of corporate power, and itself embodies a counter form of globalization, that appreciates our interdependence and diversity, the universality of human rights and of fundamental freedoms. By focusing on corporate power, this movement is addressing a critical issue for world development. Bendell demonstrates this by charting how corporate power has grown and impacted on the well-being of people.

The study describes a range of activities on corporate accountability, which not only involve radical campaigners, but also mainstream organizations that learned that unaccountable corporate power is an obstacle to addressing their particular social, environmental or human rights concerns. Coalitions calling for new regulations on corporate transparency and accountability represent a significant development for the future of international policy in this area.

Moves by some corporations to demonstrate their responsibility are found to be a reaction to these developments. Some consider corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives are intended to, or should, undermine this movement, and associated calls for more effective regulation. However, Bendell argues that as we need to raise the bar for all companies to reduce poverty, protect the environment, and improve human rights, so the true mark of a corporation's responsibility is its support for improved regulation to address these problems: "the responsibility of one is to work for the accountability of all." The paper provides examples of companies breaking ranks and supporting regulation in areas like climate change and financial transparency. They are recognising the limitations of voluntary action, and the need to address systemic problems with the weakening power of governments to regulate and tax economic activity. Therefore, novel alliances between erstwhile enemies in the corporate and anti-corporate arenas can be expected, and are necessary to drive the development of an international instrument on corporate transparency and accountability, which is so urgently required.

The paper questions assumptions about social progress and democracy in the twenty-first century, and encourages us to reconsider the compromise between property rights and property obligations on which capitalist economies are based. It calls for a refocusing of the counter-globalisation movement, CSR, and ultimately mainstream politics, on how to ensure the owners of capital are accountable to those affected by their capital; something Bendell calls “capital accountability".

Jem Bendell is a visiting fellow at Nottingham University Business School, and a consultant to international organizations. He obtained a PhD from the University of Bristol and has published articles and two books on corporate responsibility. For more information, visit www.jembendell.com

Order PP TBS 13 from UNRISD ($12 for readers in industrialized countries and $ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students). The report is also available electronically and without charge from this Web site.