MDGs to SDGs: An Opportunity for Businesses to Join Forces

October 22, 2013

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set in 2000 by 189 United Nations members, were aimed at significantly improving social and economic conditions in the world's poor countries by 2015. As this deadline approaches, some controversy has arisen over the progress made over the MDG’s thirteen years and counting.

Most experts agree that the proportion of people living in poverty (defined as earning $1.25 per day) has been cut-in-half since 2000 (thanks mostly to jobs created in India, Bangladesh, and China). World hunger has also declined (1-in-8 suffers from under-nutrition today versus over twenty percent two decades ago). But when it comes to MDGs of universal primary education, gender equality, maternal health, sanitation, and such, progress ranges from mixed to middling to dismal.

How dismal?   One new study by a Howard Friedman of the U.N. Population Fund (which was disavowed by the UN and published independently) reports: “The general result was that there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000.”  A closer looks at the data, however, shows that some poor countries have made substantial progress in many areas, but that others have not moved the needle at all.

Ok, what has this got to do with business? 

The UN Global Compact and the MDGs

In 2000, businesses throughout the world were invited to join the UN Global Compact. Hundreds of member companies made commitments at that time to align their organizations around ten universal principles in areas of human rights, fair employment, environmental sustainability, and anti-corruption. They also agreed to partner with the UN to help to achieve the 2015 MDGs.

The Global Compact has flourished since its inception and today numbers over 7000 companies in 145 companies around the globe. What linked business to the MDGs was the idea that companies are essential to creating jobs and boosting incomes in developing countries and could, in the spirit of social responsibility and sustainability, use their wealth, reach, and influence to promote better health, sanitation, and the welfare of women and children, among other MDGs.

We became involved in this campaign by working with a set of global companies under the rubric of “GC Lead.”  Over twenty leading global businesses pledged to share knowledge and support one another in their quest to advance the MDGs and sustainable development overall. Since that pledge, Novo Nordisk has made significant contributions to health in developing countries, Manpower to reducing child labor and sex trafficking, Nestlé to reducing rural poverty, and General Electric to protecting human rights, to name just a few significant contributors.

Yet, when it comes to the eight MDGs, business investments and activism to date haven’t been up to the task. So, what now: Back to business as usual? 

Sustainable Development Goals

On the contrary,  business leaders have been working with the UN, along with global NGOs, development experts, academics,  and policy figures to reshape and refocus their collaboration around broader and, frankly, more business-relevant global priorities pertaining to climate change, water, food, women's empowerment, children's rights, decent jobs, and education.

A preview of what are being called Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs) can be found in a new report to the UN Secretary General, titled Corporate Sustainability and the United Nations Post 2015 Development Agenda, which offers suggestions for engaging businesses in these areas. While the specific goals and national targets sound familiar (end poverty, empower women and girls, ensure healthy lives, secure sustainable energy, etc.), the report identifies five overarching themes to guide strategies and actions:

  1. Leave No One Behind
  2. Put Sustainability at the Core
  3. Transform Economics for Jobs and Inclusive Growth
  4. Build Peace and Effective Open and Accountable Institutions for All
  5. Forge a new Global Partnership

It is the fifth point, forging a new global partnership, that takes a company beyond its traditional corporate responsibility or sustainability agenda and beyond partnering with, say, an NGO to address social needs. It calls for businesses to collaborate to truly “move the needle” on SDGs.

Forging Global Partnerships

In recent columns we have described a variety of multibusiness and multisector partnerships, ranging from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign. But most of these partnerships aim primarily to reduce business risks and involve a lot of window dressing. They don’t require real accountability for goal achievement nor are feet “held to the fire” when problems or competing priorities lead to underperformance.  

The potential to make significant contributions to the SDGs creates a unique opportunity for companies to pivot away from business as usual and bring their innovative talents and global reach together to have a real impact on the world’s future.  Imagine if coalitions of businesses selected one of the SDGs to tackle and took performance seriously?  Here they would frame the challenges in strategic terms, apply their full complement of resources (money, people, know-how, and influence) to the necessary tasks, establish KPIs to guide action and monitor progress, and reward tangible achievement.

Food companies and agribusinesses, for example, might band together to eliminate under-nutrition. Pharmaceuticals and public health organizations could coordinate efforts to provide universal childhood immunization and, finally, eradicate malaria and tuberculosis. The many energy companies might share technology and know-how to make a dent in global warming. The possibilities are endless.

But, of course, so are the pitfalls. Public companies are profit driven. Is this the best use of their shareholder’s monies?  Global companies are rich, but not at the scale to move the needle on SDGs. Should they partner with competing companies?  With national governments?  With the United Nations?  Many private sector executives pale at these thoughts.

Yet it is clear that global challenges to sustainable development are becoming more urgent and complex. Nearly every institution is at risk from failing human and ecological systems and none on their own has the resources, know-how or legitimacy to turn things around. But, businesses today, working together and in concert with others sectors, have the requisite talent, treasure, reach, and wherewithal to achieve the world’s SDGs.

The challenge from Rabbi Hillel as paraphrased over the ages is relevant here. Business leaders ask yourselves, “If not me, then who?  If not now, then when?”