Business and the SDGs: time for companies to drive global progress

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are the successor regime to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs marked the first time that the world was able to come to a consensus and agree a plan for tackling the most intractable problems of our time. As such, the focus in planning the successor regime moved on to widening and deepening cooperation in the development agenda and setting more ambitious targets.

Role of business

Delivering the SDGs represents a challenge of far greater magnitude than that of the MDGs. The greatly expanded set of goals, from eight simple goals to 17 Goals and 169 targets – demands a much greater degree of understanding and sophistication than any government, development agency or NGO can coordinate alone regardless of how large they are. In addition, the cost of delivering the SDGs will be so great, they defy conception.

It has been estimated that meeting the targets will cost as much as USD 2-3 trillion per annum over the fifteen year lifespan of the goals. Given the scale of the challenge and that the MDGs were only a partial success it was widely understood that the new regime needed to learn from past mistakes, mainly the failure to ensure that business was sufficiently involved from the earliest point.

Unlike in the case of the MDGs, businesses actively fed into the design and plans for financing of the SDGs through the UN Global Compact. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda for Financing the SDGs outcome document includes the private sector in its vision of “Multi-stakeholder partnerships” and calls for “the resources, knowledge and ingenuity of the private sector […] to mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to complement the efforts of Governments […]” .

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals

Increased power for companies

Working within country level partnerships to deliver the SDGs will give companies increased power, and as the cliché goes, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Business has unprecedented influence on sustainable development. Increasingly global in nature, possessing the knowledge and expertise to innovate and transform, with the scale and supply chain to bring those ideas to fruition; corporations can, and must take a leading role in delivering the SDGs.

Companies should advocate

But business needs to recognise that there is a real danger that due to the scale of national SDG partnership, civil society may get crowded out.  This may be particularly true for small local organisations and those attempting to influence governments on environmental and human rights issues. This is part of a wider closing space for civil society and companies can ensure that by engaging in partnership with government they also advocate for greater involvement of civil society and for tolerance of critical voices. After all, corporate leaders know that a lack of accountability is bad for business in the long run.

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