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"2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - why business should bother?" BSCC Business Luncheon in Geneva

23 June 2016
"2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - why business should bother?" BSCC Business Luncheon in Geneva

Keynote address by Mr. Michael Møller
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

“2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - why business should bother?"
BSCC Business Luncheon in Geneva

Thursday, 23 June 2016, 11:45 am
Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Quai Turrettini 1, Geneva 1201

Chairman Conway-Fell;
Ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you very much for the invitation to join you at today’s luncheon. The British Swiss Chamber of Commerce – or BSCC – has a long and proud history of bringing together some of the leading companies in Britain and Switzerland. It serves as an example of the benefits of cross-border collaboration. In Geneva, where many international organizations and major international trade organizations are located, such examples of effective collaboration inspire multilateral work. And in the coming years, the BSCC and other business associations and groups will increasingly become key partners for the UN system – far beyond the issues of trade and the economy. I am very pleased to share with you some of my thoughts about the future of collaboration between the public and private sectors, particularly in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In 2015, our leaders agreed on a set of new policy frameworks, the scope and implications of which have not yet been grasped by many actors around the world. A new agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, the Paris Climate agreement and of course the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development together yield the most comprehensive set of shared goals that the international community has ever set for itself.

With 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the 2030 Agenda is the glue that will hold these different action plans together. For a successful implementation of the adopted policy frameworks, major changes in the way we do business are needed. A shift in our working culture is indispensable. All of us, including the private and public sectors, will need to work in a more interconnected, horizontal manner across issues.

For too long, economics, peace, human rights, humanitarian aid and other areas have been pursued in silos. The 2030 Agenda goes beyond economics and points to comprehensive conditions that must be in place for sustainable economic growth to flourish. When the conditions for sustainable economic growth are put in place, business will grow. This is the short answer to the topic of my speech – why business should bother with the 2030 Agenda. But let me provide some examples.
Goal 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. These are not necessarily topics that are on the first page of business and management textbooks. But they are directly linked to how well an economy is doing. Our colleagues from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for example, estimated that the economic cost of conflict in 2014 was over 14 trillion USD or 13.4% of global GDP. It is probably safe to assume that the vast majority of companies and sectors represented here at this lunch today would hesitate to invest in countries that face instability, have weak institutions or are in conflict.

There are many similar arguments that can be made with respect to the other sixteen goals. Climate action – under goal 13 – as well as resilient city planning – under goal 11 – are needed to avoid an ever climbing number of natural disasters impacting infrastructure and production capacities of important business sectors. In 2013, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction here in Geneva collaborated with PricewaterhouseCoopers in a joint study. They found that the total year-by-year damage from natural hazards had increased from below USD 10 billion in 1975 to an all-time peak of close to USD 400 billion in 2011. Flooding in Thailand in 2011, for example, disrupted the supply of hard-disk drives of several major global companies.
And if we think such situations do not occur close to home, let’s look back a few weeks: barely half a year after the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Louvre had to be partly evacuated to protect paintings from flooding – a strong reminder that natural disasters can hit anywhere, and will do so more frequently. So if you still need convincing that business should bother about the Sustainable Development Goals, speak to your budget department when they have to negotiate the next insurance deal for your company. It is quite telling that even businesses operating in the insurance sector, such as Swiss Re for example, are endorsing the Sustainable Development Goals.

I have given you some numbers because large dollar sums are usually the way to get the attention of successful business leaders. But the reasons why businesses, and business leaders in particular, should bother about the 2030 Agenda go beyond pure profit. The Agenda is about shared responsibility. Most economies worldwide provide particularly large opportunities for those with capital and high levels of education, enabling them to be innovative. Some of you will have read the Oxfam report at the beginning of this year, which pointed out that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the remaining 99% put together. With wealth comes power, and with power comes responsibility. So the 1% have a lot of responsibility to shoulder!

This is not just a moral argument. It is about our collective wellbeing. People want to live in societies that are fair, where hard work is rewarded, and where one’s socioeconomic position can be improved regardless of one’s background. Yet, globally speaking, many people have lost trust in institutions at all levels of governance, as rules meant to protect equal rights and opportunities are often broken with impunity. The discussions surrounding the referendum held today in the UK on EU membership, regardless of the result, have highlighted the disconnect between many people’s expectations and the perceived results delivered by institutions.

Working in the private sector, you know just how difficult it can be to re-build trust in a company or organization once clients have lost confidence. An example known well by many in Switzerland and the UK was the diamond trade during the wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere. The Kimberly process to certify diamonds that were not from conflict regions emerged in large part because companies realized that consumers were beginning to distrust claims about “clean diamonds”.

Accountability and transparency are key in re-building trust. And at the UN, we very much face the same challenges. People hear about blockage in the Security Council on Syria. They hear about peacekeepers committing horrendous crimes. And as a consequence, they might question the amount of resources and efforts their governments allocate to the UN system. The people are not aware of the many ways in which their lives are touched each day in a positive way by work done across this system. The UN can do better, much better, to inform about the positive impact of its work. Like any other big organization, the UN is not perfect and there is room for improvement. Being aware of the positive impact and deficiencies is important for well-informed and non-biased decisions by our constituencies. And we need to give people back the confidence in the institutions that structure societies at all governance levels: local, regional and global, across the economy, politics and other areas.

To tackle these challenges, we need to incorporate new technologies, which have transformed the relationship between public institutions and the people, just as they have changed the interaction between companies and their customers. Individuals have been empowered to hold others accountable. They have adjusted much quicker than our complex organizations. The 2030 Agenda provides us with an opportunity to catch up. But to do so, we need to work together across issues and with different groups of actors. The Sustainable Development Goals provide the frame within which we can create a new, collaborative working culture. Multi-stakeholder models are increasingly needed. The negotiations of the different frameworks adopted in 2015 were more inclusive than ever. The same now has to hold true for the implementation.
The BSCC brings together different types of business models and institutions, from start-ups to global players. In light of today’s events, it is also noteworthy that the BSCC has become increasingly inclusive in terms of its regional scope over the years. It adjusted its statutes in 1994 to “reflect the new Europe” by extending the right of membership to any EU citizen or company. These are steps that we can build on to enhance the collaboration across the private and public sectors.

In the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations will increasingly become a facilitator rather than an implementer, leaving implementation to whoever has the best competitive advantage. This will bring new opportunities for business. But it will also mean that closer coordination and information exchange are needed.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a major driving force in enhancing such cooperation. Through its SDG business hub, including an “SDG Compass” developed in cooperation with the UN Global Compact, the WBCSD provides information and advice to business about how you can reap the benefits of contributing to the SDGs. Located here in Geneva, this is an important partner, alongside the World Economic Forum and other major actors at the interface of the private and public sectors, who have made sustainability a key priority.
The private sector of Switzerland, and Geneva in particular, is well positioned to take advantage of these opportunities as our host city is a knowledge hub of international activity in the fields of foreign affairs, development, human rights, health and high-tech research, among others. This status is largely due to the close cohabitation in the Lake Geneva region of 34 international organizations; 400 NGOs; and more than 250 Permanent Missions and delegations. Add to this the dense network of actors in other Swiss cities such as Bern or Zurich for example, and Switzerland is clearly positioned at the forefront of the implementation of the new agenda. And with cheap flights, London is less than two hours away. As is the case in "Silicon Valley" with respect to advanced technologies, this concentration of human capital and institutional know-how creates a conducive ground for reflection and development of solutions to the major international issues of our century.

To achieve the transition towards this new and integrated way of doing business, we are actively creating innovative opportunities for information exchange in International Geneva and beyond. For example, we established a network of 89 partners under the umbrella of the International Geneva Perception Change Project, to improve communication between entities and to develop a common narrative about the impact of the work done by the multitude of actors. We have also mapped the expertise of different organizations on the Sustainable Development Goals, and are in the process of extending this mapping to include more than 200 entities from International Geneva. And we are working on a website that collects the mountains of data generated here, making them available to anyone including you and your companies at www.gvadata.ch.

One of the examples of how this new way of working across silos can yield concrete results is an initiative that I launched with the Permanent Representative of the USA and an NGO – Women@TheTable – at the end of last year, called the Geneva Gender Champions. In the international community, there is widespread agreement on the goal of achieving gender equality. Yet, despite research that shows the positive impact of empowering women across diverse fields such as peace negotiations or managing boards of companies, most of our own organizations have not achieved anything close to gender parity. In less than half a year, the Gender Champions initiative collected more than 100 leaders of International Organizations, Permanent Missions as well as NGOs, the Canton of Geneva and business, who have made more than 250 concrete commitments to work towards gender equality. I encourage those of you who have not yet joined, to become a part of this initiative, or to create your own network in the UK and elsewhere. You can find more information online at: genevagenderchampions.com.

The Geneva Gender Champions initiative is just one of many examples that show that different stakeholders can come together under a common roof to pursue shared objectives. What we need are frameworks that give clear guidance, but leave enough flexibility to adjust targets to the context of each actor. The 2030 Agenda is such a framework. A company has different advantages to a governmental organization. But each have their part to play. So why should business bother? Because the 2030 Agenda will lead to major change in the way we do business, and actors that are not part of it, may be left behind. More and more companies are recognizing that financial profit and morally responsible business practices can be mutually re-enforcing, and adjust their business model accordingly. I look forward to strengthening our collaboration in our shared responsibility of the pursuit of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Thank you very much.