As written, SDG number 17: Strengthen and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development clearly refers to the UN process of developing the global sustainable development agenda. A process which stretches back to Johannesburg in 2002 and beyond, with the contribution of the Rio conference and the Rio+20 process and more. It recognises that in addition to having a multi-stakeholder process for articulating goals and aspirations, which is important; there has to be effective implementation of change on the ground. Some lessons were learned during the implementation of the Millenium Development Goals, but the writers of these 17 new sustainable development goals know there is much more to be done, and with global warming, time is of the essence.
When it comes to making changes in how humans live in developing countries today, private business is a critical force shaping lives. Private firms are making massive inward investments to developing countries, providing goods like soap, medicines, mobile phones, computers and services like consultancy, accountancy and legal advice, and of course there is the internet. International and local companies are doing a huge amount for the development of poor countries through free market initiatives. However, their role in the sustainable development “partnership” is still pretty peripheral – it remains dominated by governments, NGOs, special identity groups and academics. While now formally considered a stakeholder by the UN system, business does not have a presence in the partnership process commensurate with is power and influence on the ground.
This is in part business’ fault as it is such a diverse sector, both in size and focus of activities; multinational and local ownership. Consequently effective representation and engagement is difficult and, indeed, it has to be said that many businesses are not interested in the SDGs anyhow. But the way the UN works makes it difficult to engage with business. It is a club of governments, some of which are pretty unappealing in terms of their policies and practices – but they still get into the club. Beyond the club membership, it was the UN who invented the term “non-governmental organisation” (NGO) to categorise the non-profits and lobby group outsiders it had to deal with. It learned ways of bringing them to the discussion table because, like governments, they too serve the people. The NGOs and special interest groups serve them with a passion and dedication beyond many government agencies, but businesses are in the for-profit sector, and they therefor serve profit. Consequently business makes uncomfortable bed fellows for many in the UN’s traditional stakeholder groupings. Indeed business is seen as the cause of many of the world’s problems, not the agents of the socio-economic justice and environmental sustainability, the Sustainable Development Goals want so passionately to promote.
An uneasy alliance
Nevertheless, the situation is steadily changing. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals were very government-orientated, these 17 new goals -which have employment, economic development and consumption issues at their core – need the private sector to be a full on active partner. The UN, like most international development agencies, is having to understand and work with, the for-profit sector. After all, the multinational companies in the Fortune Global 500 have annual cash value added figures well in excess of the GDP of most developing countries while at the same time touching the lives of millions of people throughout their value chains. They are the agencies integrating our global economy and have immense technical and people resources to be deployed in the social, economic and environmental fields.
Until the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, the senior levels of the UN did not talk to companies about global issues. There was some engagement on issues like agricultural development and through agencies like the ILO. But basically companies remained the “capitalist exploiters”, multi-nationals in particular, and dialogue was taboo. However, today’s rising multinationals are all from former communist countries like China and Russia, and socialistic countries like India and Brazil. Consequently the US and Western domination of the Fortune 500 list is waning. It was UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, who realised that you could not have development without the private sector and reached out to the business community by setting up the UN Global Compact. In addition, UN agencies as diverse as UNDP and UNICEF have made real strides in working with companies on a wide range of issues and in different forms of partnership; From sponsorships to policy development and international standard-setting.
Another limit on the engagement of companies is that the primary focus of the 17 Goals is the poorest of the poor, and for profit companies don’t relate well to the desperately poor. Through their value chains some companies like Unilever can provide a family with all its weekly needs for personal and family washing in Bangladesh for the price of one Cocoa Cola; while Mondalez buys approximately a quarter of Ghana’s cocoa crop, supporting the incomes of over 200,000 small farmers. However, the poorest find it hard to become employees or customers of big companies like Mercedes Benz, Glaxo and Microsoft.
However, it is the investment and training commitments that all companies of substance make, that genuinely help developing the working, middle and even elements of an upper class in developing countries. All developing countries need the social, economic and organisational skills of these groupings, as they seek to develop an economy and an accountable political system. A focus on the poorest of the poor often overlooks these “nation-building” investments but they are as vital as the investment in universities and schools. Indeed Unilever was once described as the best business school in India because of all the senior executives who had served there, and were now running other, often local, companies. The massive garment industry of Bangladesh today began with the investment of the Daewoo corporation of South Korea in one local plant. Many of the managers left and started their own businesses; no single development agency was involved in the growth of this industry, which now contributes over half of Bangladesh’s foreign earnings and provides well over a million jobs.
Delivering on aspirations
Big international companies are some of the world’s greatest problem-solvers. They can get oil from deep seas and take a baby sweet corn from the field in Kenya, and have it on a super market shelf in London within 30 hours, complete with all hygiene checks and a correct bar code. The slums of Brazil have cable TV but don’t have running water and sanitation. International companies are high focussed, performance-driven and disciplined global organisations. They take aspirations and turn them into facts on the ground, constantly monitoring and measuring performance in order to gain efficiency and ensure success. The 17 SDGs are all high level aspirations and someone has to turn them into practical realities based on feedback gained from constantly measuring success.
A few companies will check their total business profile and value chain impact against the list of 17 SDG goals but most will focus on a few issues that are close to the business and get involved in doing something about them. Sometimes this will be through business activities particularly in the value chain where large companies are most likely to interface with poor people. At other times it will be through community out-reach projects; often in partnership with non-profits and charities. In many respects the 17 SDGs are high-minded aspirations and companies will be most engaged in turning them into practical action on the ground.
In a previous generation, companies faced many of the problems identified in the SDGs when they did business in developing countries. What they did was to integrate them into the business and solve them for their employees and their families. They created corporate services that ensured well housed, healthy, educated workers, with access to clean water and other services needed for a productive life for themselves and their families. Companies like Tata in India, can be very proud of what they achieved in this respect. But these “corporate welfare states” are dying out rapidly. In part, due to the way business is conducted today, the costs involved, and also because paternalism is not a good thing. It is better to meet these social challenges through constructive partnerships with company stakeholders and the wider society. This shares costs and builds capacity in society.
At first sight, the 17 SDGs are a bit of a laundry list of good works to be done but they do set global priorities and give companies a reference point when deciding how to develop their business and make a wider social contribution. Companies also have a way of assessing their wider impact on human and environmental issues of importance and a benchmark by which to judge their net contribution to global development. In turn, they can show how to develop certain aspirations into real progress on the ground. Although they are capable of doing much themselves, they will need partners too and that is a real opportunity to take the partnership agenda beyond high aspirations to practical reality. There is still much to be done to develop the craft of practical partnership and all potential partners have much to learn, business included.
You can view Corporate Citizenship’s full SDGs 2015 blog series here.