Catalyzing Business Action Means Recognizing Business Engagement

"The action of the private sector can make or break the Post-2015 Development Agenda" 

- Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries


UN member states are in the final stretch of their deliberations to finalize the UN post-2015 development agenda, an ambitious global blueprint to guide sustainable development planning and implementation across the UN and at the national level.  This global agenda will apply to all countries, and while governments are primarily responsible for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is expected that government will fully engage all societal partners for help in implementation. 

From a business standpoint, this marked shift in orientation towards the private sector is long overdue and reflects our on-the-ground experience, particularly in developing countries: governments alone are not enough to address the critical challenges of sustainable development, nor can the public, business and philanthropic sectors achieve their maximum potential operating in isolation from one another.

This was the conclusion of a July side event in New York on substantive engagement for stakeholders in the post-2015 development agenda, organized by the EU European Economic and Social Committee, the Delegation of the European Union to the UN and the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs. Government and civil society speakers all presented several versions of what was essentially the same clear message:  the post-2015 agenda will not meet its ambitious aims without a dedicated “space” for business and civil society, including involvement in formulating and implementing goals at the international and national levels.

Chaired by Nikhil Seth (Director, Division for Sustainable Development, UN Division of Economic and Social Affairs), with the participation of Karmenu Vella (European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries), and Ibrahim Thiaw (Deputy Executive Director, UN Environmental Program), the session was held during the UN’s High-Level Political Forum – an annual review of progress on sustainable development initiated at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012.  The side event invited views from NGO, union, farmers and youth representatives.

In my comments as a business representative to this discussion, I offered simple principles for building the interface with non-state actors, beginning with business:

       Pursue an “all-hands-on-deck” approach: For business, that means UN agencies and national governments should invite all sectors, sizes and nationalities of the business community to the table without discriminating between different industries or their perceived relative contributions to sustainable development. We need all companies to strive towards more sustainable practices, and leaving whole industries out of the conversation misses an opportunity for meaningful exchange of ideas and wider dissemination of good practices. If there is a “will” demonstrated by individual companies or industries to engage in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the UN and governments should create a “way” to involve them.

       Encourage and recognize input across the entire life cycle of inter-governmental policy development, including priority-setting, policy formation and implementation: Bringing in the private sector or other stakeholders only for implementation and tracking of existing policies is too little, too late. This is relevant across all levels of policy formulation – global, regional and national.

       There must be a clearly recognized process for business and other stakeholders to contribute meaningfully to intergovernmental processes:  It is not enough to create “a space” for stakeholders. Business and other stakeholders will bring their best efforts and representatives if they know the input will be heard and reflected through official channels. Recognition of official advisory groups representing business, labor and other elements of civil society is a tried and true element of many intergovernmental efforts, including the ILO and the OECD.   

       A sufficiently well-resourced institutional infrastructure for engagement is vital to sustain and build the contributions of the private sector and civil society.   Too often, the stakeholder role is an afterthought, lacking enough staff support and institutional influence to be effective.

       Make it easy and user-friendly: Layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and criteria for non-state actors to engage in deliberations wastes time and resources and discourages involvement.

       To make the post-2015 development agenda reach its potential, governments need to plan and provide resources and add value to catalyze voluntary efforts and partnerships.  This could take the form of sharing good practices, capacity-building and other ways to encourage non-state entities to help governments shoulder their burdens.

       Recognize the unique traits of various constituencies and do not force consensus or one-size-fits all – the objective should be to combine multistakeholder efforts and dialogue with constituency-specific inputs and initiatives. For example, while the EU Economic and Social Committee provides a forum for joint effort and discussion across stakeholders, it also allows channels for single constituencies to offer their specific views and initiatives.  The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda and HLPF follow-up should accommodate this same flexibility for policy dialogue and implementation. 

       Involve not only leadership – as important as that is – but also experts and practitioners: While CEOs are important leadership messengers, much of the ongoing work and innovation depends on the involvement of and dialogue with experts and executives engaged in business operations on a daily basis from there is a tremendous amount to learn.

In his closing comments, EU Environment Commissioner Vella also pointed to the impact businesses can make through concepts such as social responsibility and green economy in improving resource efficiency, providing funding for infrastructure and protecting biodiversity.  This potential for supportive business impact has been born out in the recently concluded 3rd International Conference on Financing for Development, which works with a recognized Business Steering Committee to provide business involvement in discussions and demonstrate how companies are stepping up to advance sustainable development. 

Last month in San Francisco, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the private sector “to take its place at the table and plot a path forward for the next 15 years, reaffirming once again that responsible business is a force for good.” Business is very diverse, made up of enterprises of all sectors, sizes and nationalities.  This diversity is a resource of solutions as broad as the SDGs themselves.  

Ultimately, a substantive role for business as a partner and solutions provider should be reflected in each SDG and made actionable through a recognized interface and role in the Post-2015 Development Agenda at both international and national levels. The post-2015 development era’s mandate to “leave no one behind” is too important – and too challenging – for any one sector to achieve on its own. We need more coordination and cooperation if we are to collectively achieve this ambitious and transformational vision for humanity by 2030.

Norine Kennedy, Vice President, Environment, Energy and Strategic International Engagement, United States Council for International Business