Sunday, 18 November 2012

After the MDGs: the private sector and development

Last night I watched the latest 007 film, Skyfall. It reminded me how so many past Bond films have featured SPECTRE, the global criminal organisation plotting to wreck havoc for its own often commercial ends. In my PhD interviews with UN officials, those who had considered the role of business in their mandate at all often tended to think that the private sector was comprised mainly of SPECTRE-like entities. I found that the consequent distrust and suspicion by officials inhibited the scope for them to co-opt business in pursuit of public goals.

2013 is just around the corner, and beyond that lies 2015, such that policymaking is turning to what priority development goals should replace the 2000-2015 Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). How should these be selected and framed? Who should / will likely decide these issues? What role should / will private firms and foundations play in the process?

This past week saw the announcement of a strategic partnership between the firm I work for and the UN Global Compact. This extends our earlier collaboration with them in identifying and explaining what macro-trends will shape the corporate sustainability agenda in the short, medium and longer terms (see here).

The corporate agenda is one thing. But one theme of this blog is the influence of private firms and foundations on public policymaking, including their input into framing global development priorities and discourse. That is, the envisaged and de facto role for the private sector extends (as it does for civil society*) beyond collaborating or cooperating on the achievement of development goals; it includes contributing to decisions on what those goals should be -- even if decisions about the formal agenda are political ones for duly constituted public authorities.

One strategic factor for public policy, especially in an era of fiscal austerity, is to frame a development agenda that aligns as far as possible with commercial realities and interests (so as to ensure corporates are incentivised and on-board) while also manifesting sustainable development imperatives (so as to engender or require transformed ways of doing business more responsibly).

One strategic factor for (big) businesses with global footprints is to try and influence a development agenda that maximises the commercial opportunities inherent in concepts such as 'green growth' while mitigating the social and environmental risks to long-term profitability. Since, in theory, most firms have an interest in seeing more peaceful and prosperous societies, they have incentives to support a formal development agenda calculated to help with this larger goal.

As we did with the 2012 Rio+20 summit, I think we'll see a much larger role played by private business and foundations in the lead-up to the post-2015 development agenda. Indeed that process of policy-shaping has already begun. Many of these actors have far more resources (and in-house long-term planning capacity) than UN member state governments.

As I've written before, there are many good reasons for care when it comes to business input into policy, even if this is already far more pervasive than most policymakers admit. The corporate world is not filled with SPECTRE-like conglomerates, but nor were we all born yesterday. A healthy objectivity is needed, even if governments do not have a monopoly on virtue.

Yet if a global internet or social media firm, for example, were to start pushing for greater recognition of the role of access to information in achieving development goals, is this necessarily something to resist simply because of who happens to be driving it? If business is showing an interest in the highest level of development policymaking, this is probably a good thing. The evil genius of SPECTRE lives on in many ways in the contemporary world -- but in striving to seek and find new paths to sustainable development we should be confident and not yield too readily to unproductive superstitions about corporate influence on public policy.


* The question of whether business or business federations (eg chambers of commerce) are members of 'civil society' or a distinct other category -- for purposes of formal inputs into policymaking -- is something on which policymakers, including the UN system, have been ambivalent. I'll return to this important question in another post. Intuitively, one tends to distinguish between a non-profit foundation or federation and a corporation, even if the latter supports the former.

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