The UN is 'open for business with business'

Here's what U.N. leaders had to say about why and how they are engaging with the private sector. Photo by: Cia Pak / U.N.

DAVOS, Switzerland — Over the past few years, the United Nations and its agencies have begun working more closely with the private sector, and that openness to collaborate and partner was on display at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

The increased collaboration came in part with the Sustainable Development Goals, which were more inclusive of business, but has also been driven by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

“He says if multilateralism is to survive, it has to grow more inclusive, and he wants to see the U.N. grow more inclusive,” Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond told Devex.

When the U.N. was founded 75 years ago, power was almost exclusively in the hands of state actors. But today’s reality is very different, he said.

“The business community, the community that tends to congregate around WEF, is a tremendously powerful and influential community,” Hochschild said. “Not to engage with that community would be foolish.”

“With the decade of action and the challenges that countries face in mobilizing the finance to deliver, their ability to engage the private sector is fundamental.”

— Achim Steiner, administrator, UNDP

Many U.N. agencies have a long history of working with civil society, but the realization they need to work with the business community is more recent, Hochschild explained. Different parts of the U.N. system are engaging in different ways, he said.

While engagement with the private sector can be done fairly easily and informally at the U.N. Secretariat, there is still “great hesitancy” in including the business community in intergovernmental processes, where member states have to decide how to engage non-state actors, Hochschild said.

“Things are moving at different speeds in different parts of the system, but the general trend is undoubtedly moving towards more and more inclusion,” he said.

That message of inclusion, engagement, and partnership was echoed last week by several U.N. leaders in Davos, including one who declared her agency “open for business with business.” Here is what the different leaders said about opportunities for collaboration and how they hope to engage with the private sector.

UNICEF

Businesses do not often realize that there is an opportunity to partner with the development community and often think that “we are working in our own world,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore told Devex, noting that there was a need for a mindset shift.

“Perhaps in the past, we have not felt that that was as important, now we see it as absolutely essential to our future,” she said, adding that UNICEF is working to streamline its processes and is interested in working with every company that does something that affects the life of a child.

“UNICEF is open for business with business,” Fore said. “The Sustainable Development Goals and this decade of action cannot have the results we need unless we accelerate, unless we have innovations. And so we have to have our antennas up for everything that is an innovation in the world and could we put it to use for children and young people.”

There is progress toward more alignment between UNICEF, the U.N., and businesses and at Davos more companies were talking about committing to working on issues, she said.

UNICEF is partnering with individual companies, but it is also thinking about how it could help create a multisector partnership similar to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, but with the purpose of connecting every school in the world to the internet. At Davos, the UNICEF team was pitching the initiative — the Global Information Goods Alliance, or GIGA — to companies and trying to get them on board.

While she may have been talking to the same companies as some of her counterparts at other agencies, Fore said it wasn’t exactly competition among them. She likened it to all the agencies being best friends in one classroom at school and they are all competing for grades — or in this case, trying to do the best job possible to reach the SDGs by building partnerships and attracting more financing.

UN Development Programme

It is important that the private sector, public sector, and civil society all speak together and have a more systematic approach, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner told Devex. “The way we can learn together, understand each other and perhaps cooperate with one another carries a premium in today's world,” he said, adding that Davos provides a unique opportunity to have productive conversations.

“As a U.N. organization, I would never expect to leave Davos having solved the problem, but either having created a new opportunity for partnering, having learned something about the possibilities that were not on the radar before, and about perhaps ... building a collaborative group of players who together can initiate sometimes just a dialogue, ... sometimes a pilot that would otherwise not have happened,” Steiner said.

Steiner is particularly focused on new technology — how UNDP can advise governments on policies that will best harness emerging technology and development finance, especially how private capital can play a role.

“We need to understand what is happening on the frontiers of technology, in the world of finance, in the world of industry and value chain creation,” he said.

In the last couple of years, there has been significant movement on financing, particularly on the basis of climate change, he said. “We're getting to a kind of critical mass. And that, again, is not only because of the private sector actors, it's also because ... central banks, for instance, finance ministers are increasingly aware of the significance of these changes to the stability of financial systems.”

“With the decade of action and the challenges that countries face in mobilizing the finance to deliver, their ability to engage the private sector is fundamental,” he said. There is a shift to a system where “private capital becomes an enabler” of public sector outcomes.

“What's been very interesting about the business engagement is that it hasn't just been about the money or the expertise or even the jobs. It's also about the changed narrative.”

— Kelly Clements, deputy high commissioner, UNHCR

The U.N. must continue to think differently and evolve because “institutional complacency is a very dangerous phenomenon,” Steiner said.

With the pace of change accelerating rapidly and with climate change intensifying, the future of work evolving, the threat of cybercrime and pandemics increasing, the ability to work together is increasingly important, he said. “These are all areas that are driving us …[to] far greater collaboration in a global context than before,” he said.

UN Population Fund

In order to accelerate its objectives, UNFPA is looking to the private sector, harnessing innovation and scaling ability, UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem said.

“It's very important for UNFPA as we talk about [our goals], to accelerate the progress by working with business leaders worldwide and in local communities, too, who are influential,” she said. “They are eager to show results and we share the platform that says a strong economy depends on women and, in our case, the adolescent girl also, being fully equipped to take their role.”

Business leaders pledged $8 billion at the International Conference on Population and Development summit in Nairobi, Kenya, last year, and it is important to work with them to reach the last mile and develop new technologies, Kanem said.

UNFPA was in Davos in part “to say loud and clear that reproductive health is a business issue,” but also to try to find solutions-oriented people to work with on issues of reproductive health, she said. In Davos, that meant working with existing partners to convene a broader group of people, pushing ahead with partners who know them, while also always “scanning” for ways to intersect with other types of companies, she explained.

The business community can also be an important political partner, Kanem said, adding that it can be “seen as impartial and a good arbiter to speak up for women.”

The UN Refugee Agency

UNFPA isn’t the only agency that recognizes that the power of the private sector extends beyond money and expertise. The voice of the private sector is important “and certainly they have a lot of sway politically in a lot of countries,” Kelly Clements, deputy high commissioner at UNHCR, told Devex.

When it comes to issues of forced displacement and migration, the international community has come to a consensus that there needs to be a shift to long-term approaches and a willingness to work with nontraditional actors in humanitarian settings, she said.

“Business leaders, the private sector have taken our call quite seriously that we need help, help in terms of expertise, help in terms of technology, help in terms of some of the solutions,” Clements said.

The business community is now more receptive to working on these issues, in part because the agency has worked to develop relationships over the past several years. The more than 100 businesses at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum and the pledges they made was an indication of that shift, and UNHCR is continuing conversations with those companies, she said.

“What's been very interesting about the business engagement is that it hasn't just been about the money or the expertise or even the jobs. It's also about the changed narrative,” she said.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.