The $12 trillion prize of the Global Goals – but will business bite?

Mumbai, India (photo: Souvid Datta)
Mumbai, India (photo: Souvid Datta)

Yesterday, as global business leaders began to gather in Davos – and we took our annual intake of breath over the grotesque new inequality statistic from Oxfam (this year we’re down to just 8 people equalling 50% of the world’s wealth) – the Business and Sustainable Development Commission launched its global report Better Business, Better World.  

The Commission, chaired by Mark Malloch-Brown and made up of leaders from a range of backgrounds, was established this time last year with the dual aims of:

  • mapping the ‘economic prize’ of the Global Goals
  • setting out how business can contribute to their achievement.

A number of reports were commissioned to contribute to drafting the final report, among them a report by Save the Children on business accountability.   

Better Business, Better World is as promised a call to action for business leaders to work together to reverse the trend of unequal growth and unsustainable business through coalescing behind the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. At its heart is a $12 trillion business case, which the Commission estimates is the potential business value arising from 60 sustainable and inclusive market ‘hotspots’ across the sectors of energy; cities; food and agriculture; and health and wellbeing.

But the reported stakes of inaction are equally high – a system of globalisation that has so far failed to benefit all of society fairly and a legacy of negative social, environmental and economic impacts – have already led to political turbulence and stifled growth.  Worse, without rapid change to economic status-quo the world is on course to reverse development progress made over the past 30 years, potentially plunging millions back into poverty.

The numbers in the report are staggering. In many cases, they’re a source of hope – a potential 380 million new jobs, with 90% in developing countries is good news, assuming these are decent jobs. The vision of unlocking trillions of dollars of existing assets for investment in critical development initiatives is equally desirable in the face of an enormous investment deficit. However, the trillion dollar question, of course, is whether the steps outlined to make this happen will be sufficient to achieve it.

One approach suggested by the report is the development of roadmaps for change that will help respond to systemic challenges facing industry sectors – such as child labour in agriculture and farming – through greater collective action. While a number of businesses are already working in collaborative ways to solve systemic problems (for instance, health and safety or low wages), this will still require a sea-change in the behaviour by many businesses that have not yet engaged in this way.

Another area promoted by the report is the need for a new social contract between business, government and society founded on increased transparency and accountability. It’s welcome to see a paper produced by the business community identifying transparent payment of tax as a key way to increase business legitimacy and to contribute sustainably to the achievement of the Global Goals. This is something that Save the Children called for in the report we produced for the Commission, alongside a range of recommendations for increased business accountability and transparency.

However, it’s disappointing that this critical section addressing business responsibility and respect for human rights sits at the back of the 100-page document, and arguably lacks the compelling vision for bold action found elsewhere in the report. By focusing so strongly on the market opportunities for business, which by their nature will only succeed in certain contexts, the report doesn’t do enough to emphasise the transformational impact that responsible business practices can have on the lives of children and adults connected to their supply chains. It’s here that the poorest and most marginalised have the most to gain from radical change and the most to lose from continuing exploitative practices by business that don’t respect their basic human rights.

Despite these challenges, the report is undoubtedly welcome, moving us a step forward in translating optimism about the potential of the private sector to help achieve the Global Goals into actions to be taken. While the risk remains that this report won’t penetrate the thinking of the majority of businesses that don’t already have the Global Goals on their radar, it positively demonstrates that a number of business leaders are taking the issues seriously and are willing to commit their energy and expertise to providing solutions.

We hope that the Commission will deliver on the title of its report and really drive progress towards better business and a better world. This report is just the first step, with the hard work now to come in realising their recommendations and bringing an ever increasing number of businesses along with them. If they succeed, then Davos 2017 could become a moment to celebrate the progress made in driving down inequality, rather than despairing at its rise.

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