The Private Sector as a Positive Partner in the 2030 Agenda

A view of the financial district in Monterrey, Mexico. (Rick Gonzalez/Flickr)

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a good example of how a collaborative and collective process gets more complicated as voices are added. The complex and discursive approach used by the United Nations resulted in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that will, if executed appropriately, continue the major positive trends in human development that were started with the Millennium Development Goals. The upcoming High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development is an opportunity to build on these trends. The catch is, doing so will require a coalition of aligned actors that is at least as complex as the process by which the SDGs were generated. Often overlooked actors in this regard are those from the private sector.

The UN, both in its official institutions and in its capacity as a collection of state governments, will face challenges in delivering the promise of the 2030 Agenda if it is assumed that only UN entities will drive the execution of the agenda. The SDGs acknowledge this with Goal 17, which explicitly calls for new partnerships and engagements to support the 2030 Agenda.

This is also part of the larger trend within the UN of grappling with the limits of the institution’s ability to act unilaterally, while also acknowledging that the scope of global challenges require complex and systemic responses. This is perhaps most clearly stated in the report of Secretary-General António Guterres on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, in which he said that the “scale and nature of the challenge of sustaining peace calls for closer strategic and operational partnerships among the United Nations, national Governments and other key stakeholders, including international, regional and subregional organizations, international financial institutions, civil society organizations, women’s groups, youth organizations and the private sector.”

This quotation shows the breadth of the “new partnerships” called for in the 2030 Agenda. These new partnerships can refer to new patterns of authority or collaboration within the UN system, and also to bringing new actors to the table as active collaborators in the 2030 Agenda. As acknowledged by Secretary-General Guterres, one of these potential new actors is the private sector.

To some extent, there’s nothing new about partnerships with businesses. The UN Global Compact has engaged with international business since its inception, and the role of both international and local firms in supporting UN commitments such as the Responsibility to Protect has been documented. But all too often, the UN (and other) actors have tended to treat business either as an afterthought, a community to be lectured to rather than collaborated with, or a source of funds rather than political or technical insight. This is changing, as the increasing need for concrete collaborative work in support of the SDGs is demonstrating the potential scope of true collaborations with the private sector.

One good example of direct engagement by the private sector in concrete, collaborative work with the public sector comes from Monterrey, Mexico. As documented by researchers Sandra Ley and Magdalena Guzmán, the private sector leaders of Monterrey came together in 2010 to address the shared problem of a massive wave of criminal violence in the city. Ongoing attempts by the Mexican government to counter narco-trafficking had led to a violent and fragmented network of criminal organizations who used both murder and bribery as tools for coercion and control. Murder rates in Monterrey were in excess of 60 per 100,000 people (for comparison, in 2016, only El Salvador had a higher murder rate at 82.8 per 100,000), and there was widespread belief that the police were systematically corrupt based on the thousands of arrests or firing of state and local police on charges of corruption.

Monterrey is one of Mexico’s financial hubs and a city with a robust history of private sector collaboration. In the face of the economic and humanitarian crises spurred by the violence, a group of Mexican companies developed a coordinated strategy for addressing the violence. Led by a collection of ten large Monterrey-based companies, the “group of 10” worked with the government to develop a three-pillar approach that included structural reform of the security sector, as well as increased tools for transparency and government accountability. Across all of these pillars, business leaders provided political support and technical assistance as well as funding. One core pillar of the response was the development of a new police force—the Civil Force—as a fresh start for anticorruption. Local companies were brought into the coordinating meetings around the creation of the new force, and acted as a bridge between national and state political figures while directly supporting the new force through public messaging support, and direct donations of equipment.

The second pillar focused on the establishment of the Center for Citizen Integration, a web-based platform for crowdsourced reporting on crime. The CIC originally acted as an open and transparent record of crime rates, as reported by citizens, and police response. Over time, it evolved to a more complex nonprofit that also provides support to victims of crime. The first iteration of the CIC was developed directly by CEMEX, a Monterrey-based cement company.

Finally, the third pillar was the establishment of a web-based system titled “Mayor, how are we doing?” (alcalde, como vamos) aimed at the mayors and civic governments of the towns in the Monterrey metro area. This system is built around publicly-developed community goals which mayors are asked to commit to, and a grading system based on public opinion surveys released several times yearly. This system has developed into an important tool for accountability, with municipal governments highlighting areas where they have succeeded as proof of their performance.

The case of Monterrey has parallels to the goals and process of the 2030 Agenda, and in particular the focus of SDG 16, namely to promote “peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.” The challenges that faced Monterrey were the same challenges that face every area where conflict is ongoing: the complex nexus of violence, weakened governance, and economic development, which can create negative feedback loops that in turn feed more violence. The coalition of actors which organized to respond to challenges in Monterrey needed to deal with multiple issues, the scope of which meant that no one actor (or even one sector) could singlehandedly respond to it. So, in a move which has lessons for the SDGs, a large part of the collective response was to develop better systems for public transparency. Through these systems, a collective understanding about what was working and what wasn’t could be developed and things that worked could be reinforced. In parallel, true structural reforms of the most systemically challenged institutions were needed.

Echoing the calls for new partnerships at the global level, the example of Monterrey involved a coalition of national and state government actors, civil society, and the private sector working collaboratively to develop responses and execute their plans. The private sector, specifically in the form of elite decision makers already engaged to some extent with politics, was an active partner in the development and execution of this coordinated response. Critically, this meant more than the all-too-frequent discussions limited to how private sector actors can shape their own business practices in support of peace or how they could fund public or civil society action. Instead, business leaders were active and engaged with political and civil society leaders in the development of the strategic plan that led to collaborative effort.

Achieving the vision of the 2030 Agenda is an enormous task, but it’s a task that the UN system has committed itself to at a time when the UN and wider communities are beginning to realize the full benefit of coordinated multi-stakeholder activity. It’s likely that these new partnerships, particularly those which bring business to the table to demonstrate a wide variety of active engagement, will be central to delivering the promise of the SDGs.

Conor Seyle is director of the research program at One Earth Future. His own research focuses on political conflict, deliberative discussion of political issues, and successful interventions in communities affected by natural disasters or war.

This article is part of a series being published by the Global Observatory in the lead-up to the 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development.