Planning for the post-2015 development agenda — which will officially kick off next week in New York during the U.N. General Assembly meetings — is expected to feature an aspect the expiring Millennium Development Goals did not in their infancy: vocal leadership from the private sector.
Still, some business leaders are wondering, as the post-2015 planning process moves forward from public discussions to inter-governmental decisions — when, how and where will the private sector be asked to participate?
Business leaders got an early start on this on Thursday with a pre-assembly conference organized by the U.N. Global Compact, which calls itself “the world’s largest corporate sustainability movement,” boasting 8,000 corporate signatories, 1,425 of whom joined the movement in 2012.
The UNGC Leaders Summit in New York convenes every three years to bring together chief executives with leaders from civil society, government, and the United Nations — and help drive the message that business and development are one and the same. It also provides a platform to craft that message within a few city blocks of the policymakers who will work for the next year to finalize the United Nations’ post-2015 development goals.
But some in the business community fear the momentum that has galvanized the business community to play an unprecedented role in development discussions recently could taper off somewhat, as ownership of the post-2015 goal-setting process transitions more into the hands of governmental delegations.
Currently, there is no clear post-2015 planning roadmap that identifies the specific moments, meetings, or high-level panels where business representatives will play a role in formulating policy, even though many — including key U.N. officials — agree that several of the dozen or so post-2015 goals will “speak directly to business and the private sector.”
Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s permanent representative to the world body and co-chair of the open working group on sustainable development goals, said the distinction between development and business communities presents a false dichotomy.
“Who is this development community?” he asked during a panel discussion.
Kamau added that “we need to see each other as one,” and noted that deliberation on the MDGs led to a primarily “social agenda,” defined by development actors from a North-South and official development assistance framework.
That sentiment does not change the fact that agreeing to a post-2015 development agenda is first and foremost a policy debate carried out by representatives from national governments.
Business leaders say they recognize the work they need to do to scale up the development outcomes they have achieved — escape what one commentator called “pilot-itis,” referring to the tendency to expend resources on small projects, without taking the necessary steps to implement them more broadly.
They believe the private sector must communicate more effectively to governments, donors and unconvinced companies the “business case” for more robust development partnerships by measuring results and telling their stories.
Thursday’s panel celebrated the launch of a report designed to do exactly that. “A New Global Partnership with Business,” produced jointly by Business Action for Africa, the Harvard Kennedy School and The Partnering Initiative, draws on case studies from ten participating businesses who relate their experiences partnering with NGOs and aid donors to describe what Jane Nelson, director of Harvard’s corporate social responsibility initiative and co-author of the survey, called “the mechanics of development.”
Nelson told Devex that all of the companies highlighted in the report sent to U.N. officials are harnessing their core business strengths, but doing so while simultaneously helping to build the broader “ecosystem” for progress on development outcomes.
Some UNGC participants warned that next week some country representatives will likely voice concerns over the high degree of business involvement in setting the stage for the next development agenda, and business leaders agreed that in some cases of corporate short-sightedness, those concerns are well-founded.
The important thing, according to Nelson, is to build a core group of representatives within each sector, capable of advocating for a more deliberate relationship between business practice and development policy.
Those advocacy efforts might take place on the global scale, on the sidelines of the post-2015 deliberations, or they might just focus on engaging individual national governments where development and business outcomes most clearly overlap, and where policymakers are most willing to agree that “development is business.”
Tune in to Devex to get updates on all the global development events happening in New York, from the Clinton Global Initiative to the Social Good Summit and the United Nations General Assembly.
Michael Igoe is a Global Development Reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, he covers US foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.