I remember quite clearly when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were being launched, a set of 8 goals with targets on key development indicators such as absolute poverty, maternal health and primary education. I was at that time based in India and felt that this was just another UN top-down initiative that would be a fad and then fade away. I am happy to say that I was wrong. While the MDGs have their limitations and the shortly coming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) try to address these, the MDGs were without doubt both a simple set of objectives and a rallying cry for all those in development.
One of the shortcomings of the MDGs that is often noted, is that there was no mention of the means to end poverty and achieve the goals, and certainly no mention of the role that economic development and business can play. Now let me set out my stall at the outset – I do not believe that economic development is an end in itself, but certainly we cannot have sustained improvements in education, health, poverty reduction etc without economic development. The role of business therefore is a key component not only in SDG 8 that talks about economic growth but to underpin all the SDGs. Can we really imagine meeting the goal to end hunger without significant private sector engagement?
Businesses, whether local to the global south or part of global trade, have multiple roles to play. Investment in productive capacity, skills and human development, creating local revenue and sharing wealth through salaries and paying appropriate taxes, and acting as a role model in society by leading on diversity and inclusion are just some of the important roles that businesses have played in the past – and can do more of to contribute to meeting the SDGs. This is in addition to the day-to-day role of developing and providing products and services that meet people’s needs.
However from ETI’s experience on ethical trade we also need to sound a note of caution. All business is not necessarily good business. If the jobs provided are mostly minimum wage, or worse, if discrimination against women is perpetuated, or investment is only made with significant tax holidays then the development impact of business will be blunted or worse, negative. The advent of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights seems to me the ideal complement to efforts to contribute to development and the SDGs. Many businesses already know that in many emerging markets institutions can be weak, the human resource pool shallow, the checks and balances that prevent abuse and corruption are often absent or not well implemented. This offers opportunities for exploitation for the short-sighted and presents a challenge to responsible companies. We need to see business go beyond their normal comfort zone as they seek to understand their impact through a comprehensive and inclusive process of due diligence – and then act in a way that really makes a contribution to the SDGs. I believe that such a process is good for business in the long run, catalysing better markets and new consumers in stable societies.
I started by saying I was a misguided pessimist at the advent of the MDGs. Recognising that the SDG framework is far more demanding, more complex and not without its own challenges, I am however a determined optimist. I believe the SDGs can be a new rallying call for all, including business, to collaborate and eradicate from our world the human suffering that goes with extreme poverty and lost opportunity. ETI will be working with our nearly 90 company members, trade unions and NGOs to help realise the SDGs in our area of expertise, ethical trade. I hope that in ten years time I will be asked to reflect on their success.