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Sunday, February 1, 2015
- Only a stone’s throw from the Davos World Economic Forum meeting, a group of non-governmental organisations presented the annual Public Eye Awards this week to Goldman Sachs and Royal Dutch Shell.
Every year in late January, a pilgrimage of a special kind can be observed in Grisons, Switzerland’s easternmost canton. Limousine after limousine, SUV after SUV and helicopter after helicopter head to Davos, the highest city of Europe. At the local congress centre, the preciously dressed pilgrims unite to renew their belief in unregulated, free market capitalism and to “improve the state of the world,” as the World Economic Forum (WEF) proclaims.
This year, ‘Resilient Dynamism’ is the motto of the global leaders’ gathering. Besides the official programme though, many participants will use the platform to hold informal meetings. Business and political interests mingle behind closed doors.
Only a ten-minute walk from the Davos congress centre, a few dozen people attended the presentation of the Public Eye Awards, a critical counterpoint to the WEF since 2000. “On the occasion of the WEF, we annually put the spotlight on corporations who cause problems, violate human rights, destroy the environment, act corruptly and push people into poverty and misery,” says Andreas Missbach on behalf of the organisers.
In order to take the wind out of the Public Eye sail and to slightly open up to the public, the WEF started in 2003 to organise its own counter event, the Open Forum. Nevertheless, the Public Eye has survived and this year once again presented two recipients for their ‘awards’.
As a result of an online voting process, the public award went to the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell. Shell’s search for oil in the Arctic drew voters’ criticism. “There is no safe drilling under sea ice conditions, Shell gambles with the wildlife and beauty of one of the last unspoiled regions on our planet,” said jury member Andreas Missbach before handing the award over to Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo.
Naidoo, whose organisation had nominated shell for the voting, said he didn’t want the award sitting in his office in Amsterdam. He promised to find Shell’s CEO Peter Voser at the World Economic Forum to present him the award.
Greenpeace is running a major campaign to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic. Naidoo addressed the Anglo-Dutch company directly: “We as Greenpeace will come after you peacefully, but aggressively until you get out of the Arctic.”
Christian Brütsch, an independent political analyst specialised on energy issues doubts that Shell can be pressured to disengage from the Arctic region soon. “The U.S. Geological Survey assumes one-fifth of the global undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources to be in the Arctic, and Shell has invested 4.5 billion dollars to prepare offshore drilling in Alaska so far.”
Brütsch said that if activists really wanted to prevent the exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic, they should target consumers. “Energy companies will only leave the region if the demand for oil sinks to a level where Arctic adventures would become unprofitable.”
However, as long as the current situation prevails, Brütsch prefers to see big energy companies in the Arctic. “Statoil, Exxon Mobil or Shell are much more capable of financing ‘same season relief wells’ (needed if leaks appear) than smaller corporations.”
Andreas Missbach stressed that Shell has been the only company so far to win the Public Eye Award twice. Back in 2005, the multinational was shamed for its activities in the tropics.
Missbach said that Shell’s investments in extremely damaging tar-sand extraction in Canada and the fact that the company had dropped renewable energy from its long-term strategy had further contributed to again nominate Shell for the prize.
The American investment bank Goldman Sachs received the jury award. The Public Eye jury argued that the company bears a large share of responsibility for the Euro-crisis.
“Goldman’s derivative deals, which fudged Greece’s way into the Eurozone, pawned the future of the Greek people,” said Missbach.
Former bank regulator and academic William K. Black, who attended the awards presentation, stressed that Goldman Sachs wasn’t just a singular rotten apple in a healthy bushel of banks. “Goldman Sachs is the norm of systemically dangerous institutions,” he said.
Black blamed the World Economic Forum for spreading the myth that fraud by corporate elite was rare. “They have pushed deregulation, de-supervision and de facto decriminalisation.”
Expert on business ethics Ulrich Thielemann said the dogma of profit maximisation itself leaves no room for moral integrity. “It’s the paramount cause for irresponsible corporate behaviour,” he said. “Ruthless competition that disregards human rights and environmental standards via non-regulation and the race to the bottom in standards of good corporate conduct must come to an end.”
Does naming and shaming companies have any use? Missbach admits that such an award by itself changes nothing. But within a campaign, he says, such a shame prize might be a useful tool. “Those organisations who nominated the award winners may use the prize to attract attention.”
Political analyst Christian Brütsch is far less convinced about naming and shaming campaigns. He points out that the names of the decried companies always remain the same. “Some corporations can afford to simply ignore criticism,” he says. Others would just increase their PR budgets, Brütsch argues.
Greenpeace’s Naidoo regards the awards as a means contributing to reduction of a company’s relational and reputational capital. He’s sure though that none of these powerful corporations will react to the criticism. “However, the failure to respond is a very loud confirmation that our accusations are true.”