Sustainable Development Goals: the next big show in town

As companies decide what role to play at Rio+20 in June, Mike Tuffrey warns that a big opportunity could be missed

MDGs. SDGs. Rio+20…. Join the club if you (like me) sometimes get confused about the alphabet soup of UN-led global diplomacy. But a really important process is underway that could lead to a successor set of international commitments, following the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June could give that process a powerful jump-start in the right direction. And business needs to be at the table.

The urgency of this is underlined for me, as we pull together our monthly round-up of news stories on corporate responsibility and sustainability for Briefing. They capture the progress – and sometimes pitfalls, conflicts and set-backs – as companies, NGOs and governments muddle along. Trouble is, too many involve trade-offs: a few steps forward, a few back; gains here, losses there. The sense of genuinely moving forward overall isn’t there…. hence the interest in a new global framework for sustainability.

To recap, the MDGs have done great job. Originating as the name suggests at the turn of the new millennium in 2000, they focus on specific issues with clear targets for 2015. They address basic issues like hunger, primary education, water and sanitation, child and maternal health, and HIV/Aids. They have powerfully focused attention and genuinely moved the needle on outcomes – albeit patchy, some more than others, some regions more than others.

So what’s next?

The Colombian Government has strongly proposed a broader set of issues, in subject clusters like climate, agriculture, and land use. A coalition of NGOs has put up a proposal too. But so far, little from companies on what business wants.

Now the UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been invited by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to chair a UN panel on what should follow. Some are suggesting unpicking the current environmental catch-all in MDG 7 to include commitments on greenhouse gases and deforestation. Others say topics like human rights, international security and debt relief need hard-wiring in.

Business ought to be saying: let’s have a strong and clear economic pillar to complete the sustainable development ‘trinity’ of social, environmental and economic areas. So far, few seem to be articulating that and spelling out what the individual economic growth objectives and enablers should be, and what the concrete targets could be.

My point is simply that companies – individually and through their business associations and partnership intermediaries – need to get stuck in now and physically at Rio in June too. Otherwise a big opportunity will be missed for another generation.

This articles first appeared in Corporate Citizenship Briefing

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