Balancing act: The Role of Businesses in the Sustainable Development Goals

As the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals approaches, it is crucial to harness potential of the private sector in helping to fulfil these goals. However, we must also remain diligent in balancing the respective roles of all players.

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Recent years have seen an increased global concern over the impact of current economic development upon the health of our people and planet. In response to these concerns, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were set out by the United Nations in 2015 and adopted by all UN member states. The 17 Goals provide a framework to guide a transition to a more sustainable and equitable future, and their associated targets offer a comprehensive and concrete goal to reach by 2030. Although qualms over a lack of a common framework may now be soothed, setting these goals was only the first step – achieving the SDGs by 2030 will be challenging, and requires bold, swift, and well-informed action.

Many actors involved in the fulfilment of these goals have come to realize, along with the relative lack of funding from the public sector, that harnessing financial capabilities of businesses is key to achieving the SDGs. This recognition of role of the private sector in fulfilling the SDGs represents a paradigm shift in comparison to previous strategies, which typically relied heavily on the public sector. This shift also reflects the prominent role that businesses have come to play in our everyday lives. The private sector provides 90% of employment to those in the developing world, and play a role in providing critical goods and services. Businesses can also be key in disseminating knowledge, best practices, and expertise to various players. Sceptics of the private sector may attempt to negate the need to involve the private sector in development, but in reality, businesses play a crucial role in shaping our institutions and socio-economic contexts.

The relationship between business and development is symbiotic; just as development will benefit from harnessing the financial capacities of the private sector, so too, will aligning business models to the SDGs be beneficial for corporations. A recent report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission (January 2017), estimated that the alignment of businesses to the SDGs could provide 12$ trillion in savings and revenue ‘across four sectors by 2030: energy, cities, food and agriculture, and health and well-being.’ The same report estimated that the alignment of business strategies with these four sectors could create 380 million new jobs worldwide.

Creating a synergy between business strategies and the SDGs is also relevant given the importance of investor interests and consumer behaviour in shaping the actions of businesses. A recent article by the World Economic Forum noted that investors are increasingly taking environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into account when making investment decisions, and it is clear that increased consumer concern over the sources and supply chains of their products have shaped the ethical behaviours and values of many businesses. However, it is true that the involvement of business in development does not come without risks – financial gain as the ultimate goal of businesses can make their values and objectives questionable, and certain experiences of private sector involvement in traditionally public sector affairs have provided bad press for the former. Including the private sector is undeniably necessary, and involves a sensitive balancing act between supporting public institutions, whilst not overshadowing them.

An illustration of the potential of multi-stakeholder partnerships between businesses, the government, CSOs, and citizens, is exemplified by a fruitful partnership developed in the city of Jakarta. This city is facing dire consequences of climate change and poor urban planning: 26.86% of Jakarta could be covered in seawater by 2025, according to the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). Poor regulation has caused over usage of groundwater supplies, causing the city itself to sink, and a lack of green areas to absorb excess water flow has aggravated the situation. The situation clearly involves a myriad of problems, and a solution, therefore, would necessitate a myriad of actors to sustain a multi-faceted solution.

In response, the Human Cities Coalition was created in 2016, aiming to tackle SDG 11: ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. The Coalition involves individuals from the private sector, the government, and CSOs, and constitutes platform created to face these problems collectively, coordinating a response. The ‘grand design slum improvement’ project was initiated in the first half of 2018, and has been described as a PPPP: ‘public-private-people-partnership’. The initiative is successfully improving the lives of slum dwellers, and a government official recently expressed support for this positive partnership:

 ‘It is only through this (public-private) collaboration that we can create meaningful changes that provide meaningful solutions for the city’.

Sans titreIn all, the involvement of many actors in the fight to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals is crucial. Given the right balance, the role of the private sector will not undermine the respective and crucial roles of governments, civil society organizations, and other local and global actors. A holistic and integrated approach to fulfilling the SDGs, which recognizes the relative roles of a multitude of players, will constitute the most effective way to fulfil the goals by 2030, and create a better world for current and future generations.

Photo: Human Cities Coalition (HCC)




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