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Back | Programme Area: Markets, Business and Regulation (2000 - 2009)

Barricades and Boardrooms: A Contemporary History of the Corporate Accountability Movement

In the context of a growing debate about the impacts of and resistance to globalization, this paper argues that world development is being undermined by corporate power, yet we are on the cusp of significant changes as societies respond to the challenge. It examines the reaction of civil society in Europe and North America to corporate power, and the emergence of a new corporate accountability movement.

The paper discusses the origin of the modern corporation, and the way that it has shaped various dimensions of modern life through influence over governments and the media. The current notion of world development is argued to have been shaped by corporate power, and thus a critique of it has major implications for development policy and research.

The paper chronicles the failure of various national and international attempts to restrict the growth of this power during the twentieth century, in order to locate a discussion of recent events. It argues that the growth of a global civil society in the last decades has created a new context, and a new opportunity to address the problem of corporate power. A range of relations between corporations and civil society groups are analysed, including the way these have created a renewed emphasis on corporate social responsibility. Bendell looks at the limitations of voluntary corporate initiatives in addressing the systemic problems in the global economy. However, he argues that the emphasis on voluntary corporate responsibility could be an opportunity if it can lead to the re-channelling of corporate power to address those systemic problems.

The various dimensions to this movement are described, including an analysis of various perspectives on corporate power, and a description of a range of corporate accountability initiatives, as well as the possibilities and paradoxes of engaging with corporations to transform the global political economy.

The paper identifies other challenges facing proponents of corporate accountability, including the problematic role of intergovernmental mechanisms and courts in delivering corporate accountability. The growing relationship between voluntary and mandatory rules is described, with one being crucial to the effectiveness of the other in delivering true corporate accountability, defined as the ability of people affected by a corporation to regulate the activities of that corporation. Other challenges include weak relationships between movement participants in the North and their intended beneficiaries in the South, as well as traditional social movements. This weakness is important to address, Bendell argues, as there is a growing backlash to the movement’s initial successes.

The paper concludes with a discussion of whether accomplishing greater corporate accountability would address the systemic problems with world development. It introduces a new concept that looks beyond the corporation and to the accountability of capital itself. This concept of capital accountability provides an opportunity for common ground to be found among progressives working in the quite separate arenas of corporate accountability, corporate social responsibility and anti-globalization. To help, the development studies academy and the international community—including the United Nations—is invited to re-engage with fundamental questions about the nature of progress, economic democracy and the role of each individual and organization in transforming capitalism for the benefit of world development.

Jem Bendell is a consultant on globalization and sustainable development issues for the private, voluntary and intergovernmental sectors, as well as being an activist. He has written on corporate responsibility and relations between the voluntary and corporate sectors. For more information, visit www.jembendell.com.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 6 Jun 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8216
    From: UNRISD