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Engaging Business in the SDGs: An Imperative for Action

Image Credit: Sustainable Development Goals Fund

For the United Nations, working with business is not always easy business. Yet it is a necessary - particularly if the recently approved Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are going to be achieved by 2030. A broad consultation and negotiation process has led to the ground-breaking and inspirational 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A process which was one the most inclusive and wide-ranging dialogue processes in the UN history. How to effectively engage businesses in this new agenda proved to be one of the most recurring, contested and challenging elements.

Overall, and perhaps with some caveats, there is an agreement that business should be at the core of the development agenda. Engaging the private sector with the UN’s broad mission and development objective may sound difficult and challenging for many development traditionalists - it is now an imperative for action.

Starting in January, the Agenda will serve to guide development work for the next 15 years in the three key dimensions: social, economic and environmental protection. The broad agenda will also touch the most pressing needs of humanity, including nutrition, decent jobs, education, water, sanitation, and energy to name a few.

It is difficult to imagine achieving these goals without the full participation of businesses in these sectors. Or even worse - perhaps to imagine companies in these sectors making their decisions without considering, let alone listening to the voices and priorities of those living in poverty. In building this much-needed bridge between societal and public goals, it is important that business, working together with the UN and development actors, can play an important role and catalyze joint action.

This concept is integral to the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals Fund. For that reason, the SDG Fund has collaborated with the Harvard Kennedy School, Business Fights in Poverty and a selected group of global business leaders to understand what we can be done in this space. Our objective was not to tell business leaders how to make their companies better corporate citizens or make their companies sustainable - our objective was simpler: listening to them to understand what their values are and what role they expect from partnering with the UN.

The result of this enlightening, challenging and rather atypical process is a new report, Business and the United Nations. Working Together towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Some key findings suggest that companies want to be part of sustainable development because they have realized sustainable business is good also good for their business. Including the most vulnerable in value chains that bring gains to all sectors or deploying sustainable and affordable energy, water and health technologies that improve the quality of lives can often generate new market opportunities. Companies also want to have a better understanding of local community needs and how their companies can contribute their technology or services in these markets.

For example, one business leader told us that he was convinced that the future of his company in 15 years depends on the SDGs. A CEO from one Latin America-based company reaffirmed the notion that when public and private partners do what they are very good at, impact is achieved that neither partner could have achieved on their own. Or as the Sustainability Manager of a global clothing company suggested “the SDGs are the way to move the world forward.”

Looking forward, the SDGs provide a clear framework for action. The road ahead for the SDG Fund to involve business in the SDGs is a bit patchy and sometimes complicated, but we are eager to find meaningful partners to make it work. This means assessing the needs of companies, including risks, involving also small and medium enterprises, establishing solid and transparent frameworks of accountability and ensuring that business operations reduce inequality instead of perpetuating it. These are critical next steps for us. Given this learning, this is the moment for global local action. 15 years might be a long timeframe for businesses, but a short one if we are to work to change history and eradicate poverty.


Dr. Paloma Durán is the Director of the Sustainable Development Goals Fund at the United Nations Development Programme.

[Read more about Paloma Durán]