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SDG Fund Report Reaches a Higher Moral Ground

Rangita de Silva de Alwis is Associate Dean of International Affairs, University of Pennsylvania Law School and Advisor, UN SDG Fund

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 6 2017 (IPS) - At this historic moment – this new report (“Business and SDG 16”) is a tryst with destiny, one that fulfills a promise that was made both by the United Nations and the private sector at the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

Rangita de Silva de Alwis

In 2015, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, spoke to the business community a day after the adoption of the SDGs and said: “Governments must take the lead in living up to their pledges. At the same time, I am counting on the private sector to drive success.”

Now is the time to mobilize the global business community as never before. The case is clear. Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals will improve the environment for doing business and building markets. “

Just last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, addressing the private sector, was even bolder in his charge: “Let me start by a brutal sentence: either the Sustainable Development Goals are fully assumed with enlightened self-interest by the business community, the private sector, and the financial sector, or the Sustainable Development Goals will be a very nice exercise in diplomatic discussions in New York and maybe in some policies of some Governments, but the impact on people, the impact on poverty, the impact on the planet, will be extremely, extremely small.”

“This is now an objective that can only work if the whole of society engages, and the role of the business community, the private sector, the financial sector, is also crucial. Without your leadership, our project will simply fail.”

The UN SDG Fund has taken up this charge and issued a call to action: In essence, the Report is a charge for the private sector to be involved on a higher moral ground, for the advancement of the human civilization and calls upon the private sector to privilege the sustainability over transient profitability.

This flagship report is a tool box and a road map to show case ways in which companies should not merely “first do no harm” but also proactively and constructively do good.

The first SDG Fund Report released two years ago made these key findings:

1) Many companies do not understand the depth of the SDGs— how best to implement them, provide a multi stakeholder partnership and common language and target.

2) It was understood in three dimensions – economic, social and environment- and is the key feature

Goal 16 has been described as the “fourth dimension” of sustainable development. This moniker emerged in the consultative process of the Open Working Group as a punitive label: opponents to rule of law in the Sustainable Development Agenda claimed that, as a fourth dimension, rule of law did not belong in a set of goals consisting of the first three dimensions.

This debate occurred despite the specific and explicit affirmation of the links between rule of law and sustainable development in previous UN conferences.

The SDG’s go beyond traditional notions of development. The three spheres of sustainable development – economic, environmental, and societal – typically are not interconnected with peace-building, access to justice, or inclusive institutions.

Instead Goal 16 is, a “cross-cutting” goal that reflects the overarching promise of the UN Charter: that development, peace and security, and human rights are all irrevocably interlinked. In Goal 16, peace-building and rule of law, are essential to support the rest of the development agenda. Goal 16 must be acknowledged as the keystone of sustainable development.

The bedrock of the Report is that it is not enough for Goal 16 to just react to numerous challenges and obstacles. Instead, Goal 16 must be proactive. Instead of adapting after the fact, the private sector must anticipate and begin responding before the fact. This is the ambitious goal of this Report.

I wish to organize key findings under five thematic pillars:

Combating Violent Extremism:

The increased emphasis on prevention represents a meteoric metamorphosis of United Nations policy. Previously, peacebuilding was originally viewed “sequentially,” coming after “comprehensive” peace-accords.

“[P]eacebuilding was presented as the logical follow-on to peacemaking and peacekeeping: the main objective was to prevent relapse into conflict once a peace agreement had been secured.” This siloed vision is only recently being replaced by a novel holistic one that places prevention at the center.

A new UN architecture has ushered in the sea-change, codifying the concept of “sustaining peace” as “a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society […] which encompasses.

As the Secretary General’s Action Plan on the Prevention of Violent Extremism states: “Lack of socio-economic opportunities are drivers of extremism and conflict. Countries that fail to generate high and sustainable levels of growth, to create decent jobs for their youth, to reduce poverty and unemployment, to improve equality, to control corruption and to manage relationships among different communities in line with their human rights obligations, are more prone to violent extremism and tend to witness a greater number of incidents linked to violent extremism. “

Goal 16 presents a valuable opportunity to bridge the development and security divide. It explicitly provides an entry point for development and security actors to come together to promote inclusive, multidimensional approaches to achieve a peaceful society.

Here again, the Report highlights the work of the private sector – which is working on controlling money laundering and financing of terrorism, in building structures on zero tolerance of corruption, and gender equality in institution building.

Gender Equality in the Private Sector

Goal 16, read with Goal 5, is a clarion call for gender equality as a preventative tool and as an important signifier of the rule of law. Corporate board leadership is an important cornerstone of private sector leadership that impacts the public sphere.

The feminization of boards also engages the private sector in the public goal of fostering women’s corporate leadership. Such policies, if universalized, would fundamentally shift both corporate governance and public governance. Increasing the role of women in corporate governance increases gender equality by advancing women’s contributions to the public economy among other things.

Recent studies show that higher numbers of women in executive positions can result in higher rates of corporate return on equity. Similarly, countries with higher levels of women’s political representation tend to have higher levels of economic growth.

Building a New Vernacular:

SDG 16, both its targets and its indicators, revolves around the rule of law and building a new vernacular. The Report introduces a new language for businesses to engage in the rule of law: The Basic View of Self Interest: Private sector itself are creatures of rule of law. Businesses depend on reliable rule and reasonable justice; The Enlightened Corporation: The private sector should build its own effective, accountable and inclusive institutions and support the expansion of rule of law in society.

The Costs of Corruption:

The World Bank states that: “Businesses and individuals pay an estimated $1.5 trillion in bribes each year. This is about 2% of global GDP and ten times the value of overseas development assistance.

The Report analyzes anti-corruption legal reforms on the ground in Cambodia, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, India and the United Kingdom, including challenges and opportunities in law reform and highlights gaps and progress. In the final analysis, law reform remains laws on paper unless they are given life to through political will.

Building Bridges and Partnerships:

This report embodies the values of collaborations and partnerships. The UN SDG Fund’s vision has been to build partnerships with the private sector and academic communities so as to strengthen the UN’s new architecture— for a reimagined global order— one that sees the pivotal importance of the private sector and academic institutions.

The role of academic institutions to spur the next generation of leaders to advance and accelerate the SDGs in the 21st Century and to reach a higher moral ground is the key to unlocking the transformative potential of the SDGs.

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