Advancing the Sustainable Development Agenda

Technology Eye | Jan. 19, 2017

Today’s millennials are more purpose-driven than their parents’ generation and their consumption patterns will reward corporate good behaviour, argued business leaders gathered in Davos to map progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), framed by the United Nations in 2015 to achieve ambitious targets by 2030, including an end to extreme poverty and hunger.

If businesses cannot convince us they are contributing to making a better world, why have them in the first place, asked Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer of Unilever. “I see the SDGs as a moral compass at a time when global governance is weak,” he said. “Our true role in business is to serve society,” added Mark Cutifani, Chief Executive Officer of the mining giant Anglo American, whose chief concern has become: “How do our products make life better?”

The CEOs’ words came as music to the ears of development and civil society actors in the room. It’s perhaps surprising to hear businessmen speak in such ethical terms. But to be fair, sustainable development makes good business sense, too. While the cost of implementing the 17 goals has been slated at $3 trillion-$4 trillion a year, the estimated annual benefits by 2030 will add up to $12 trillion-$13 trillion. In other words, sustainable development is a great investment.

Polman suggested that 800 million people going hungry or 1.8 million children dying of preventable diseases offer “tremendous opportunities for the private sector”. And with governments currently contributing just $160 billion a year in development funding, there is a massive funding hole that only corporates can fill. “We’re getting to a point where the cost of not acting is higher than the cost of acting,” he said.

While a combination of pressure from millennials and the chance to boost the bottom line might best motivate the private sector to embrace sustainable development, progress on the SDGs will only happen through a broader coalition of corporates, civil society, NGOs and government.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children International, pointed to the success of a collaboration between her organization, Unilever, vanilla supplier Symrise and the German government in boosting the livelihoods of vanilla farmers and their communities in Madagascar. However, agencies are lagging on delivering the SDGs and progress needs to step up. According to Thorning-Schmidt, those participating in the Annual Meeting should use the SDGs as a framework for the kind of responsive and responsible leadership which the World Economic Forum is calling for.

Polman put it more bluntly when he said: “The shortage is in moral leadership.” Unilever is reaching out to 1,000 CEOs to encourage their companies to internalize the SDGs and prioritize the goals within their corporate strategies. We need the markets to start working, said Polman, to create the new financial tools such as green bonds and blended financing that will deliver on the goals.

Speaking on behalf of the indigenous women of Chad, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim echoed the urgency of partnerships and emphasized the vital role women play in local decision-making; for example, where the best locations are for a village water point. She brought the conversation back down to earth by emphasizing what the SDGs mean to her community. “For us, the SDGs mean life, livelihoods and equity – giving everybody an equal chance”. Equity of opportunity brings people together, she said, reducing resource-related conflicts and increasing the chances of peace and security.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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