Are we ready to take the SDGs seriously? This is the first part of a two-part op-ed
It has now been two-and-a-half years since 193 nations unanimously adopted the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Despite all the upbeat conversations around the goals, do we really understand what meeting the goals requires or the role that the government, businesses, and citizens should play in the process?
The enthusiasm for the goals is undeniable. After all, it is becoming increasingly clear that the issues addressed by the 17 SDGs will have an overarching impact on all business and society as a whole. Failure to address the goals can bring severe financial risks in every part of the world.
A concerted effort to meet them will be a key driver of economic growth -- an estimated $12 trillion a year in business savings and revenue by 2030 (according to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission).
It makes commercial sense to embed the SDGs in operations and strategy, but how ready are businesses to support governments in achieving these global goals? How ready are governments to engage the private sector?
Driven by the UN, the SDGs are a set of global goals that governments are expected to achieve by 2030. However, governments should look to society and businesses in particular for help to achieve them.
Governments will want to measure and monitor progress and manage the effectiveness of their interventions. In turn, businesses will need to assess their impact on the SDGs and review their strategy accordingly. They will need to collect, verify, and report new data, while also developing their reporting procedures.
Who should take charge?
It would seem sensible that a CEO would want to know if her/his business operations (across its value chain) support or detract from the government’s goals. It’s only practical if a CEO wants to be on the receiving end of “fair” regulation and a licence to operate. It’s not about businesses implementing the SDGs -- it’s about having a strategy that, at the national level, is congruent with government ambitions.
Equally, there is a real opportunity here. The SDGs put a spotlight on some of the world’s biggest issues and our ability to shape our impact on them, for good or bad. To our mind, this represents a catalyst for innovation and new market opportunities for the savvy CEO to embrace and drive growth.
So, how can the government get the best from businesses? There is no clear request for support as it is still early days. But when the request is made, it needs to be pitched to businesses in a way that resonates and can be easily interpreted and incorporated into normal business operations.
Instead of NGO-speak and political rhetoric, there is a need for practical guidance on how to engage, and the business benefits of doing so. After all, the investment from businesses should not be underestimated.
Determining requirements, accessing the right skills, and developing the right tools will be top priorities to understand and deliver impact assessment, goal setting, strategy development, operational change, and reporting in this new world.
Businesses will also need to re-think their strategy and change behaviours to evidence their contribution and, hopefully, be seen to be contributing positively to the government’s goals.
Where to put the money smartly?
In terms of social good, some SDGs provide better returns than others. Made up of 169 targets, if the world were to spend money equally across all of them, it would do about $7 of social good for each dollar spent. But according to the Copenhagen Consensus, a much shorter list of just 19 targets will do the most good for the world.
Every dollar spent on these targets will likely produce $32 of social good. Being smart about development spending could be better than quadrupling the global aid budget.
Another quick win would be to map the linkages of the goals. Analysis has shown that two of the proposed goals, SDG-12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG-10 (reduced inequalities), provide critical connections to other goals and make the SDGs more tightly linked as a network.
SDG-12, SDG-10, SDG-1 (no poverty), and SDG-8 (decent work and economic growth) top the list, and all of them have links with 10 other goals or more. So, with SDG 8, the top-ranking SDG for businesses, we could naturally see improvements across other SDGs as well.
Will business pick up where NGOs left off?
Driven by governments and NGOs, the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) achieved much, but it is widely recognized that there is significant work still to be done. It’s expected that the SDGs will engage the private sector far more effectively than the MDGs, with businesses as proactive supporters of governments, as they try to achieve the goals. Certainly, we’ve noted that awareness of the SDGs is high amongst businesses, much more so than among citizens.
To what extent should businesses be taking a lead from the goals that general society deems important, rather than focusing just on the goals where the company believes it has the most impact and opportunity?
After all, businesses are dependent on society for employees, customers, and their reputation and licence to operate. So, if businesses are targeting priorities that are not on the consumer agenda, is this indicative of a mismatch in the way they identify and value their dependencies?
The concluding part of this article will be published tomorrow.
Mamun Rashid is a partner and Jishan Rahman is a Government Reform consultant at PwC Bangladesh.