Civil Society Answers to Corporate Capture

By Ana Margarita González*


A common practice of private companies is attempting to influence the legislation and institutional framework of States in order to design policies that favor their interests. Corporate capture is defined as undue influence that corporations exercise over national and international public institutions to maneuver in accordance with their interests and against the general public interest and the duty to respect, protect, and guarantee human rights. Companies adopt different mechanisms to co-opt governmental decisions that establish norms regarding companies’ actions in different countries. Thus, it is important for civil society organizations and communities to understand the way in which companies act, and to design strategies to avoid their undue influence in public policy decisions.

In spite of companies’ almost unlimited capacity to concrete this agenda, civil society organizations can challenge and denounce these practices. Global South experiences are particularly useful to identify the elements of a strategy for civil society organizations. Corporate Capture Strategies Lobbying politicians or public policy makers and direct financing of political parties to influence national policy agendas is the most frequent form of corporate capture. Similarly, the so-called “revolving door,” which consists in moving key members of the public sector to the private sector and vice versa, is also popular.

In addition to influencing or creating incentives for the executive, companies also seek to influence judicial decisions and mold public debate through the activity of NGOs and think tanks. Companies not only attempt to influence think tank activity, but also create and finance non-profit organizations, allegedly independent, to guide public debate, such as the recently denounced Global Warming Policy Foundation, whose principal mission is to deny the relationship between human activity and climate change. In spaces for the definition of global policies regarding company activities, Greenpeace has denounced the presence of more than 124 organizations financed by Exxon that attempt to question climate change for the benefit of this company. In negotiations during Conferences of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the extractives sector organizes booths, dinners, meetings, and participates in meetings as observers, through commercial organizations that are considered NGOs under the current rules of the COP, as happened in the earlier Warsaw COP. Successful Experiences Combating Corporate Capture This situation leads to the question of what strategies organizations can develop to prevent corporate capture at the domestic and international decision making levels.

At the national level, various organizations have attempted to use legal action and public exposure to denounce the undue influence of companies in the public sector. With respect to legal actions, the Brazilian organization Terra de Direitos has created enough pressure to restrict corporate support for judicial events and prohibit the granting of corporate incentives to members of the judiciary. Via litigation before the Brazilian National Justice Committee, organizations managed to impose limits on stimuli and forced the judiciary to be accountable. In Kenya, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission has lobbied to strengthen the right to information in order to achieve greater transparency and visibility of regulatory proposals in the legislature regarding corporate behavior, as well as strategies to clarify the rules regarding financing and interest rates.

Additionally, strategies of exposing the relationships between sectors has been useful for studying corporate capture and designing mechanisms to combat it. The Who is who Wiki initiative, undertaken by Mexican organizations, includes a database that reveals corporate ties to Mexican politics, accompanied by a media campaign. At the level of global policies related to climate change, the Center for Democracy has undertaken a research initiative regarding corporate ties to the upcoming COP in Lima, that will held at the end of 2014. This project is the fruit of a strategy of collaboration between NGOs and research centers, and the reports on the role of extractive industries in negotiations demonstrates the contradiction between the interests of corporations (who are generally responsible for pollution), and the progress of negotiations.

To counteract corporate capture, civil society needs to have a broad array of measures and strategies, in addition to political will of the State and companies. For civil society, collective measures that promote information, transparency, and monitoring of companies, so that the regulations of business activities in various sectors avoid greater human rights violations.


*Ana Margarita González is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia)

Photo credit: MinAm Peru