Jane Nelson, CSR Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School: Mobilising Business Action for the MDGs

Jane Nelson

It has become increasingly clear that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) cannot be achieved in the absence of a diversified and productive private sector. The economic growth and wealth creation that is essential for their achievement will come primarily from business.

Most of the innovations in new technologies, new products, new financing mechanisms and new service delivery models necessary for tackling environmental challenges and including the poor as producers and consumers will also come from private enterprise – whether this is large multinational corporations, national companies, small and medium firms or social enterprises.

This is not to suggest that companies and markets are a panacea. Governments in both developed and developing countries clearly have a crucial role to play in creating the appropriate policy framework for such enterprises and for ensuring accountable and responsible management of public revenues and services. Yet, they cannot meet their commitments to the MDGs without effectively enabling, regulating and in certain cases partnering with private enterprise.

In a growing number of cases, business offers a variety of solutions ranging from the adaptation of individual products, processes and value chains to collective action. The business contribution will depend not only on factors such as the industry sector and the company’s business model, but also on the type of development intervention needed – such as increasing access to jobs, education, health, energy, water, technology and markets or improving accountability and public capacity.

Almost all companies have the potential to make a contribution to the MDGs through the following three areas of business action:

(i) Inclusive business models and value chains – The greatest and most sustainable contribution that any company can make to the MDGs is through carrying out its core business activities and investments in a productive, responsible and inclusive manner. This can range from producing products and services or developing new technologies that directly address a particular MDG to transferring skills, resources and business standards along supply chains. In some situations these activities can be made commercially viable from the outset. In many cases, however, they require various forms of seed or venture funding, or ongoing public or donor support – hence the growth in public-private partnerships. At a minimum, companies can implement environmental, ethical, labour and human rights policies within their own operations.

(ii) Competence-led social investment, philanthropy and hybrid funding models –Companies can also harness their core competencies and assets in non-commercial yet strategically aligned ways to support the MDGs through a variety of cause marketing, employee volunteering and community engagement activities.

(iii) Public policy dialogue, advocacy and institution building – Ultimately, improvements in public policy and institutional capacity are necessary to achieve the levels of scale needed to lift millions out of poverty and achieve the MDGs. Here business can play a role by actively participating in relevant public policy dialogues and advocacy platforms, as well as helping to build or strengthen public institutions and administrative capacity within developing countries.

Moving forward, much more work is needed on evaluating what works and what doesn’t – both in terms of business models and partnerships, as well as public policy innovations.

More work is also needed to build greater awareness and capacity within business and government on the issues at stake, the business case for engagement and the tools for partnering. And above all, there is a need to engage thousands more companies, from the established multinationals to the emerging corporate leaders of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

This article is from the recent Business Action for Africa publication, “MDGs at the Mid-Point: Accelerating Business-Led Growth and Collective Action”. To download the full report, click here.

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