WATCH: The role of the private sector in global sustainable development

“The development activities of civil society and the public sector are critical but not sufficient,” Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, chair of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, told an audience at Brookings in reference to the need for private sector engagement in global sustainable development. At an event co-hosted by the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings and the United Nations Foundation, the case was made that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need the private sector and that business needs the SDGs too.

In her welcoming remarks, Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens, deputy chief executive officer of the U.N. Foundation, introduced the commission’s work as “path-breaking,” based on the geographic and sector-specific underpinnings of its business case. She further described the challenge of sustaining public trust, and the power of aligning the private sector’s core business with the strategic objectives of the international community.

Malloch-Brown, himself a former U.N. deputy secretary-general, explained that a core theme of the commission’s new Better Business, Better World report is that development should be central to business activity because it eventually leads to sustainable profits. The report draws on insights from over 30 global private sector and civil society leaders who are commission members, including Jack Ma of Alibaba, Laura Alfaro of Harvard Business School, Bob Collymore of Safaricom, and Ho Ching of Temasek Holdings.

The panel following Malloch-Brown’s opening remarks was moderated by Brookings Senior Fellow John McArthur. Panelists discussed the report and their views on how business can become a bigger player in lifting countries out of fragility, tackling climate change, and taking on the challenge of ending extreme poverty.

Barry Parkin, chief sustainability and health and wellbeing officer of Mars Inc., reinforced many of the themes laid out by Malloch-Brown, using the example that it is the food industry’s best interest to help lift farmers out of poverty, because they’ll be incentivized to continue producing the crops the industry needs rather than find other jobs.

Regarding policymaking, the director of the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, Jane Nelson, emphasized how business can leverage its influence on governments to push for good public policies, or what’s been called the question of “responsible lobbying.” “The commission has highlighted that the policy voice of business is also incredibly important, both being responsible about it in the way they advocate, but also looking at new opportunities,” said Nelson.

Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, argued that today’s political environment and growing anti-globalization backlash have created hurdles for development and that much of the previous work, in terms of public policy, is already being reversed. O’Brien stressed the need for governments and businesses to face incentives to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, with citizen engagement as the best mechanism for ensuring they do so. At the same time, he posited that, “Making the opportunity case to the corporations right now, for the SDGs, may not be the biggest challenge of our time.” Instead, O’Brien suggested it might be even more important to focus on broader impact, regardless of whether companies are specifically talking about the SDGs.

Answering the question of how to move forward, Malloch-Brown maintained that convenience (and expediency) is not the solution; rather we need businesses to seize upon large-scale opportunities and become leaders in global development if we are to make headway in creating a better world.

Malloch-Brown concluded with a hopeful statement about the private sector’s embrace of social responsibility, saying, “We have moved from the one-dimensional [profit and loss] company of the past. That has for me been the most exciting discovery of working with these companies.”

The full event video, audio, and transcript are available here.