At the turn of the century the United Nations adopted eight Millennium Development Goals. The organisation worked with governments to make a difference in the world in areas like poverty, hunger, primary education, gender equality, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, child mortality, maternal health and diseases like AIDS, malaria, etc. In a 15-year period, it is generally believed that the actions taken have had some impact in some parts of the world (e.g. Brazil, China, India) and none in other parts (e.g. Benin, Nepal, Bangladesh). The need was felt to ramp up action and include more stakeholders in the belief that this would lead to greater impact on society. The conversation on climate had also gathered significant momentum in the 15-year MDG period.
This was the context in which the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were conceived after an intense multi-stakeholder engagement process. There is a conscious effort to engage the public sector, the private sector and civil society to work together to make a difference.
While there is greater granularity in the SDG goals compared to the MDGs, each of the areas of action are large and cannot be addressed through philanthropy or government largesse alone. The first SDG, “No Poverty”, is something that the UN is pursuing since its inception, “Garibi Hatao” (Eliminate Poverty) was a was an election winning slogan in India more than 45 years ago, many corporations and philanthropists have worked on projects to reduce poverty as a part of their effort to give back to society.
Yet poverty persists. As do many of the issues that the SDGs seek to address. There are also some that are getting worse over time such as life on land, life under water, etc.
The task associated with each of the 17 SDGs is so large that only sustainable business models can hope to make an impact in each area. An SDG like “Zero Hunger” creates opportunities in the supply, distribution and consumption spaces of the value chain. Ensuring adequate food supply can trigger huge business opportunities in seed production, sharing of best practices, farm mechanization, judicious use of agro-chemicals and bio-pesticides among others. The farm extension services required to take best practices to farmers can gain greater penetration and have higher impact if government infrastructure and people collaborate with private sector teams. A successfully implemented business model for “Zero Hunger” will have positive externalities for other SDGs such as “Decent Work and Economic Growth” and “Partnership for the Goals”. Many of the SDGs are intertwined and a successful business model to address one will have positive impact on others.
India’s legislation on corporate social responsibility is both an enabler and a distraction towards achieving the SDGs. While the investment of 2 percent of corporate profits can get many good projects started, the expectation that this money will solve the problem is a gross underestimation of the problem at hand. To achieve scale it has to be a full-fledged business that addresses the issue. One member of the renewable energy industry will do more for the adoption of “Affordable and Clean Energy” than all CSR projects in the renewable energy space combined! A business that can support cleaning of plastic from the oceans and repurposing the material in an economically value added manner will enable greater impact on “Life Below Water” than a high-profile non-profit funded clean the ocean initiative.
Governments around the world are starting to use the SDGs as their roadmap for shaping and implementing national policy and regulation. Current programs can be classified using the SDGs they have primary impact on and the government can make an assessment whether the programs need to be supplemented in any SDG or not. Up to 69 percent of CEOs in the 19th Annual Global CEO Survey said that government and regulators have a high or very high impact on business strategy so enabling governmental policies can trigger impactful corporate action.
A cursory glance at the SDGs may suggest that they are about “doing good”. In reality, the SDGs are more about survival than “doing good”. It is difficult to believe that we can have sustainable communities where poverty, hunger, unemployment, polluted air, contaminated water and social strife are rife. The good news is that the Sustainable Development Goals have succeeded in drawing attention to the most critical areas that need to be addressed; the 17 goals and 169 targets lay out the agenda for the creation of a better, more inclusive, sustainable world.
Anirban Ghosh leads Sustainability at the $20.7-billion Mahindra Group.