They have taken up an offer from a committee headed by Microsoft supremo Bill Gates to exploit "a very exciting opportunity" provided by a crucial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - the body which regulates world trade - in Seattle at the end of the year. Both the White House and Sir Leon Brittan, the outgoing Vice President of the European Commission, have protested.
In a letter to the White House obtained by the Independent on Sunday, Sir Leon says that the scheme threatens to have a "devastating effect" on the credibility of the WTO, which is already heavily under fire from development experts, green campaigners and some governments for promoting the interests of big companies against those of poor people, public health and the environment.
Forty companies - including Procter and Gamble, General Motors, Xerox, Hewlett Packard, Northwest Airlines, Boeing, and the Ford Motor Company, as well as Microsoft - agreed to sponsor the meeting, after receiving a letter offering different levels of access, graded according to the amount of money they give, from "gold" (over $25,000 or pounds 16,000) up to "emerald" (over $250,000).
The letter, from the Seattle Host Organisation, says that companies who help pay for the conference's running costs will "become part of a process to develop substantive business input to the WTO through a series of business programs".
It adds that they will also be able to send representatives to two special receptions and a dinner for "Heads of State, Ministers and Delegates" and promises "preferential seating placement will be made for sponsors". It concludes that the organisation is "confident that you will agree these benefits make your participation worthwhile".
Yesterday, Ronnie Hall, of Friends of the Earth International, commented: "This comes as no surprise. The WTO consistently offers a privileged place to business in its negotiations, at the expense of ordinary people."