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South Africa Must Respond – & Lead– on COVID-19 & SDGs

Dr Leila Fourie, Group CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and Fani Titi, CEO of Investec, are members of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance.

Secretary-General António Guterres poses for a group photo with the members of the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance. Credit: Mark Garten / United Nations

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, May 18 2020 (IPS) - Sitting on the southern tip of Africa during a time of social distancing, while the entire planet fights Covid-19, we cannot help but reflect on how vulnerable our country is to this scourge.

The pandemic has highlighted the underlying inequalities in our society. More than half of South Africa’s population lack access to piped water in their homes – never mind electricity or safe sanitation. We lack adequate medical facilities and the basics required to fight a contagious disease of this magnitude.

Never has the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development been more relevant, more critical or more urgent.

The 2030 Agenda sets out a vision for a future for the planet and its people in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It matters to all spheres of society and requires inclusive and sustainable economic development.

This is vital for South Africa, which has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, severe poverty and rising unemployment. The COVID-19 lockdown exposes the deeply unequal nature of our society. A person from the affluent suburb of Sandton has very different health and livelihood challenges from one in the neighbouring, densely populated Alexandra township.

In this, we are not unique. Frankly, if the world had had a higher level of commitment to achieving the SDGs, this pandemic’s impact would not have been so severe. Investments in better health systems and reducing inequality would have helped tremendously in dealing with the pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences.

But there is hope. We see in public and private sector alike a renewed consciousness and a willingness to respond. This is the time for leaders to step up and take bold action.

South Africa is vulnerable as an emerging market with severe economic challenges, but is uniquely positioned to implement a sustainability-focused strategy, in a way that respects the dynamics and population demographics of the continent. We have deep and liquid capital markets that serve the domestic economy and the wider continent, as well as a strong and sophisticated financial services sector.

The government of South Africa has limited fiscal space so the financial and corporate sector have rallied to assist in putting together a responsive economic package. The urgency of the crisis has eliminated previous procedural hurdles and opened the way for strong collaborative approaches. This gives us hope for even greater partnerships post Covid-19.

We are proud of the leadership shown by South Africa’s President in responding to the pandemic. This is why we have both chosen to join the President in donating 30% of our salaries for three months to COVID-19 relief efforts.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) is the largest exchange in Africa and is critical in facilitating the functioning of the South African economy. Particularly in a crisis, the financial services industry and the exchanges are vital in directing financial flows to where they are needed most.

Investec plays an important role in funding a sustainable economy that is sensitive to the world’s limited natural resources, promotes carbon reduction and contributes positively to economic growth and social upliftment.

While we respond to COVID-19, we believe we also need to ensure that recovery in South Africa is lasting and resilient. That means major reorientation of investments and the global financial system to align with the SDGs. And the pace must greatly accelerate in order to deliver during the Decade of Action.
More than anything, South Africa needs a sustainable reset – one that takes into consideration the natural resources required to support a competitive economy, but also meets the short and long-term needs of society. Development must be economically, socially and environmentally responsive, ensuring that we leave a healthier planet for future generations.

For JSE and Investec, we believe a major shift in mind-set is required. Investment strategies and expectation of returns need to include sustainability-linked metrics.

Yes, the idea of sustainability has risen in importance, however it needs to move from a values-based metric to an outcomes-based imperative. In order to help achieve the 2030 goals, policy makers need to set up an enabling framework for related investment in the pressing issues covered by the SDGs.

The will is there. We have seen a steadily increasing demand for financial products and initiatives that prioritise transparency, good governance and ultimately, action. Investors not only want to see greater sophistication and flexibility from their investments, but they also want those investments to have an impact on creating a better world.

It is important for them that our actions and products align with our commitment to support the SDGs. To this end, the JSE, which pioneered the world’s first sustainability index in 2004, has been driving a number of projects which directly underpin responsible investment.

Instruments such as social bonds, aimed at improving social outcomes and based on partnerships, are critical in making the finances available to meet the many challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is one of the reasons we joined the UN’s Global Investors for Sustainable Development (GISD) Alliance – tasked with catalysing capital and skills to urgently fill the SDG financing gap. Traditional models will not meet the estimated $2.5 trillion investment needed over the next 10 years.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only demonstrated that cooperation is possible on a previously unimagined scale, but also highlighted the need for connection, even in a time of social distancing.

As part of the GISD Alliance, we are working with leaders across the world to help unlock capital flows that will explicitly support sustainable development.

Both Investec and the JSE have a long history of caring for the people of South Africa, supporting our communities and driving economic growth.

As CEOs – and as leaders, parents and grandparents – we are both personally committed to accelerating action on sustainable development and creating a better world for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

We believe this kind of collaborative approach is needed around the world, to enable all citizens to live in society in a mutually beneficial way.

If we do not invest in the world that we want, the one we get will be worth infinitely less.

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