Suiting Themselves

Richard Welford

International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1, 4, May 23 2007, p. 412

Sharon Beder, Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda, Earthscan, London, 2006

I expected this book to be a provocative, stimulating and challenging read and I was not disappointed. In a style consistent with her previous work, Beder has put together a meticulously researched book highly critical of the boardroom machinations of the world’s corporate eéite. The accusation, well-founded after reading this book, is that many business leaders deliberately influence global politics and policy-making to suit themselves.

Beder points out that corporate executives are engaged in interconnected networks of ownership and control such that they become politically active on the part of business as a whole, rather than individual companies. Moreover, they support a network of think tanks and public relations firms with a clear agenda, particularly at election times. Beder also shows that the influence of business extends to institutions such as the World Bank, whose powerful economists pass through a revolving door between multilateral banks and international financial firms.

Of particular interest was Beder’s assessment of policies relating to privatizations of public services. For example, she argues that water privatization has turned a human right into an economic good that must be paid for by those who use it. She shows that most people end up paying a lot more after privatization, arguing, for example, that prices went up 150 per cent in France and 106 per cent in the UK between 1989 and 1995. In Manila, rates went up 500 per cent after privatization. Profitability of the companies involved, not surprisingly, soared. Thus, the whole policy agenda suited business.

Moreover, Beder points to the huge profits that banks, financial institutions and consultancy companies make when advising on the restructuring of government enterprises.

The book argues that the trade agenda is also set up ostensibly to benefit business and that trade negotiations are dominated by business. For example, the Multilateral Trade Negotiation Coalition, representing 14,000 US companies, was shown to be hugely influential in negotiating GATT. On many occasions, Beder shows how business influenced politicians through well-known public relations agencies.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes to illustrate Beder’s main thesis. The role of AmEx in promoting the opening up of access to new markets because its own were saturated and its involvement of political ‘heavyweights’ illustrates the power of the corporate élite. Links between the big brands, presidents, politicians, business associations, corporate coalitions and multilateral organisation might be read as conspiracy theory if was not for the evidence and proof of complicity that Beder provides.

I enjoyed reading about the many accounts of opportunism on the part of international consultancy firms who sidle up to every profit-making opportunity with their ridiculously high prices and poor level of service.

This is a book well worth reading. It is a great read, shocking, but at times funny, too, in other ways. Beder’s style and attention to detail makes this a must-read book for any one interested in big business, globalization and sustainable development.

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