Corporate leaders: Effort to rebuild trust underway


Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 10:12 p.m.
DAVOS, Switzerland - Corporate leaders at the World Economic Forum turned their attention Monday to the official theme of the conference - how to restore public confidence in business.
"We are dealing with this issue head on," J.T. Battenberg III, chief executive of U.S. auto supplier Delphi, told the forum, an annual meeting of 2,300 government and business leaders.
The crisis of confidence was brought on by scandals like the collapse of U.S. energy trader Enron. Several at the forum called for a new commitment to old-fashioned business ethics instead of relying completely on the laws and rules affecting corporate governance.
"We no longer live in a world where business can say, 'Trust us. We'll do it right,' but one where the public will say, 'Show me you'll do it right,' " said Jaap Winter, former legal adviser to Unilever.
"Business must not only do the right thing but be seen to do the right thing," said Winter, who led a group of experts on corporate governance and accounting issues for EU finance ministers last year.
The official of this year's forum was "building trust," but the meetings have been overshadowed by the U.S. threat of war against Iraq.
Business and government leaders at the forum also showed signs that they have moved closer to solving a problem that has threatened to bring global trade negotiations to a halt.
Intensive talks among the heads of pharmaceutical companies, South African trade minister Alec Erwin and other trade officials made progress in finding ways to ensure poor countries can afford vital medicines, said Supachai Panitchpakdi, director-general of the World Trade Organization.
"In the last few days I thought (drug companies) have shown the kind of understanding that really we aren't that far apart and we should still be looking for a possible solution," Supachai, who also participated in the talks, told reporters. "What we heard at the meeting was encouraging."
Negotiations on the issue collapsed late last year after the United States refused to agree to a plan that would have let poor countries in certain circumstances override patents and order cheap, generic drugs from foreign companies to treat diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Discussions are due to restart Tuesday at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva.
The forum, in the posh Alpine resort of Davos, has been criticized by some activists as putting corporate profit ahead of improvements for the world's poorest people.
But on Sunday, the new leftist president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, expressed hope that the forum can be brought closer to the opposition World Social Forum, where Silva also spoke before coming to Davos.
"This is like a simple negotiation between a labor unionist and an employer," he said. "Once they sit at the bargaining table, we can see there are many topics that can be improved so we can reach an agreement."
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called to the nations of the world to back the Bush administration in a potential war with Iraq.
"History will judge us whether we have the strength, the fortitude and the willingness to take that next step," he said.
Jordan's King Abdullah told the leaders in the next session that there was little chance of avoiding war in Iraq. "We're a bit too little too late," he said. "Today I think the mechanisms are in place . . . It would take a miracle to find dialogue and a peaceful solution."

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