3 steps to enhancing business engagement in the sustainable development agenda

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses participants of the International Business Forum during the third International Conference on Financing for Development held July 24 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. How can business engagement in the sustainable development agenda be enhanced? Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

If you’re the CEO of a company large or small, you will be excused for rolling your eyes at the forthcoming U.N. development agenda for 2030 and its 17 sustainable development goals, 169 targets and yet-to-be determined indicators to track humanity’s progress on all of the above.

Business likes simple, and the SDGs are not exactly PowerPoint-friendly. Still, one thing is certain: The bulk of this bold new agenda is clearly relevant for business and thus presents a tremendous opportunity for businesses to demonstrate the truth of Kofi Annan’s adage that it is the “absence of broad-based business activity, not its presence, which condemns much of humanity to suffering.”

In contrast to the text of the Millennium Development Goals, in which business’ role was barely mentioned, in both the SDG outcome document and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the UN has more assertively than ever before extended a hand to the private sector in search of a handshake. But to seal this deal with business, three critical steps need to be taken as the 2030 development era begins.

The next three steps to revitalize the partnership with business

First, national action and ownership is key. As soon as the gavel bangs on the SDG summit, national governments should organize cross-ministry working groups and begin convening stakeholders — including business and civil society — to collaboratively assess and identify their priorities.  As the vast majority of the SDG targets can be either directly contributed to or advocated for by business, it should be included early on in national strategizing — why wait until implementation stages to finally seek private sector involvement on areas in which it likely has expertise? Donor agencies and other actors should build capacity in those countries that need it to help them lead their own SDG prioritization planning sessions.

Second, implementation — by governments and others — has to be tracked, and the indicator framework being developed now should sync its efforts to the greatest extent possible with the very robust ecosystem of corporate reporting. The U.N. needs to figure out a way to process and make sense of the tremendous volumes of information companies already provide on sustainability.

How can we discuss achieving the targets on biodiversity, sustainable consumption and production patterns or financial inclusion without considering corporate reporting on these and other issues? How can we do it without some interaction between ‘official’ member state or U.N. agency statistics and other data?  We would be missing the bulk of the story on a good number of targets and missing a chance to redirect both government and business resources to filling gaps as we identify them along this 15-year journey.

Finally, the question hanging on everyone’s lips at the SDG summit in a few weeks will be “implementation,” but more specifically, what will the political follow-up and review process look like for the 2030 agenda? The high level political forum that emerged out of the Rio+20 conference has not been radically transformed by the SDG and Addis texts as some might have hoped, but it still has tremendous potential to serve as an annual checkup on our collective progress. The crucial question that member states need to answer for business is what the role of the private sector will be in the ongoing intergovernmental discussions about follow-up and review?

The U.S. Council for International Business has actively engaged in the broad-based Global Business Alliance organized by the International Chamber of Commerce as the interlocutor for business engagement in the post-2015 process, but opportunities for business to intervene and engage in frank discussion with member states have not been proportionate to the tremendous expectations being placed on the private sector globally or nationally. Part of this is a result of the UN’s complex bureaucracy, but part of it is also due to the latent negative attitudes towards the private sector that have shined through at times throughout the post-2015 process. Those attitudes are not only often disconnected from the working methods of many U.N. agencies, which eagerly seek out private sector capital and partnerships, but also are fundamentally inconsistent with the approach adopted for the revitalized partnership.

What is needed in the follow-up and review is a more empowered business focal point in the deliberations and ongoing coordination between the sectors. A business focal point would be helpful as a resource to U.N. agencies and member states looking for broadly representative business views on pressing issues or seeking partners for their projects. It would also be critical in shepherding companies through the labyrinth of U.N. agencies to help drive more collaboration and scale up successful partnerships.

Seizing the moment

Business stands at the ready to be an engaged partner — and has been for some time. We’ve started to catalogue that activity in our “Business for 2030” portal. Using the lens of the SDG targets, Business for 2030 helps focus the attention of U.N. member states and U.N. agencies on just how involved business has been in sustainable development in recent years and simultaneously provides uninitiated companies with concrete, impact-driven examples not of commitments but of initiatives with metrics documenting their impact. Even with more than one-third of the 169 targets already covered in the more than 80 examples of activities across the world, we know that we have only scratched the surface of ongoing business engagement.

Where, for example, should a national planning ministry, development finance institution, a corporation or corporate philanthropy, a U.N. agency or an international or local NGO turn if they are looking to improve outcomes on a given goal or target? How would they know — in a comprehensive fashion — what kinds of projects have been implemented by whom and to what effect?  With the advent of big data and the data revolution in development, such tools can and should be developed. Business for 2030 is a modest step in that direction.

Our larger goal, however, is to truly transform the global partnership for sustainable development by changing the way businesses view and engage with the U.N.’s sustainability agenda while changing the way the U.N. views business: as an engaged partner that hopes to bring prosperity not only to themselves, but to the global community.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #SustainDev.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ariel Meyerstein

    Dr. Ariel Meyerstein is vice president for labor affairs, corporate responsibility and corporate governance at the United States Council for International Business. He works on work on some of the most challenging issues of globalization confronting companies, civil society and regulators: the intersection of investment and corporate social responsibility, including sustainable development and human rights.