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Beyond the MDGs:Business and the New Development Agenda
At a recent event in New York held to coincide with UN General Assembly week, I joined senior representatives from the private sector, development organisations, NGOs and academia to discuss the role for business in developing and delivering a new development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.
In defining a role for business in development, my starting point is to ask the questions: What are the biggest, most urgent problems facing our global community – all 7 billion and more of us – and how can business help to solve them? For what good companies are all about, I think, is identifying problems that need solving in the world, bringing together the brightest and best people they can, and giving them the resources, direction and freedom they need to get on and tackle them. This is true of my own company – our central purpose is to help people make progress in their lives through learning and we aim to drive everything we do by that measure, making learning more accessible, affordable and effective.
In my experience, business will engage and contribute if it sees a development goal worth striving for,and it sees a meaningful and sustainable role for itself in tackling it. That’s why the private sector is now seen, rightly, as a major partner in the global battle to improve health, tackle poverty, stimulate economic growth and bring opportunities to a much wider group of people. It is why businesses understand that we can’t have a viable future without healthy, sustainable communities.
In looking at business priorities for the new development goals to follow the MDGs, I can best frame my response around the development goal I know most about – MDG 2 – relating to education. For education, the current MDG is a simple one. It is to ensure that all children, regardless of gender, have access to primary schooling.
The goal’s simplicity is its greatest strength. And, although it has stalled somewhat in recent years, progress has certainly been made. Nearly forty million more children are in school today than in 2000. Enrolment rates in the world’s poorest countries have improved from 60% to over 80% - even more impressive when you think populations have been rising.
But, as the Brookings Institute has pointed out, there has been a price to be paid for the simplicity of the goal. Enrolments must not be confused with learning. There are still as many as 200 million children attending school but still not learning anything much at all, especially not the basics of how to read and write. The average number of years children spend in education in sub-Saharan Africa is five. Yet one in two of them reach adolescence unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks.
This would suggest that, as we think about the next iteration of development goals in 2015, we need to retain their simplicity but add to them a harder edge. We should build on existing priorities, but make them more specific, and more focused on outcomes. Ultimately, it is not access to schooling alone that counts, but the quality of that access - have we improved learning, increased literacy and numeracy rates, and ensured that our children are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in their lives? – that matters.
So, in education, my answer to the question of how to build on the current MDG would be to focus on three priorities:
To achieve this will require all of us involved in global education – governments, donors, civil society and the private sector – to act in a very disciplined way. To be effective, we’ll need to analyse the data, measure the return on investment and, when we find the often basic, simple and systemic processes that do work, we’ll need to scale them quickly and effectively. In determining where the role for business begins and ends we should try to answer a simple question: what works? And, when we know what works:how can we help to share it as widely and successfully as possible?
All of us in global business, working alongside other actors and local communities, need to put aside any differences or special interests, and ask simply how we can best help to achieve the current MDGs and how we can best contribute to setting, and delivering, the next generation of goals. Why? Because in the long run, it is good business. And because fixing the problems that really matter to our communities is the business that, in one form or another, we are all in.
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