UN Sustainable Development Goals

How to make the SDGs a reality? Create more pre-competitive space

Commentary, 25 September 2015

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

World leaders have gathered at the UN in New York to agree a new set of global goals - the Sustainable Development Goals - establishing the framework for joint global action on poverty, inequality and climate change for the next 15 years.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be endorsed by world leaders in New York this week, represent a unique opportunity for greater global prosperity – but only if businesses and governments know when to stop competing and instead start working together.

Competition is a good thing – it drives innovation and creativity as can be seen, for example, in new technologies that allow the world to be more connected through social media and mobile communications. But competition on its own doesn’t establish a shared baseline, or level playing field that helps ensure the benefits of economic development reach all the world’s people – including its poorest and most vulnerable.

Such a level playing field in the global economy must include respect for all internationally recognized human rights. The United Nations has affirmed that businesses, wherever they operate, have a responsibility to respect human rights in their own operations and in their business relationships. Human rights surely should not be an issue for competition but rather an area where business works with others to achieve positive results. The problem is that many existing approaches to “corporate social responsibility” or “shared value” tend to leap over this baseline in order to promote strategies focused primarily on competitive advantage. Terms like “non-competition” or “anti-competition” (both of which may fall foul of anti-trust laws) aren’t the answer. Instead, we should be envisioning the kinds of cooperation needed for fair competition to exist – fair in social and environmental terms as well as financial. Over recent years we have seen some of this in the arenas of healthcare, apparel supply chains, some commodities, security but on most other issues we have not.

It has been estimated that at least $1 trillion a year of new private sector investment is needed by 2020 if the SDGs are to be met by 2030. A good portion of this investment will power new “public private partnerships” or PPPs aimed at development challenges such as building new infrastructure and improving public services. However, there is little consensus, within or outside the UN, of what sustainable PPPs, or indeed business investment in development efforts of any kind, should look like in practice. How will business efforts in support of the SDGs be accountable to the very populations and communities they seek to serve? In human rights terms, how will we ensure that baseline performance expectations are firmly in place through human rights due diligence (by both states and business) as well as adequate remedies for those whose rights may be adversely impacted by even the best-intentioned development efforts?

Put another way, we need incentives for many more businesses to work with their competitors as well as with governments, trade unions and civil society to ensure sustainable development strategies seen as legitimate in the eyes of society - building a “social license” if you will. Only through such “pre- competitive” approaches can larger competitive forces be harnessed for the benefit of all – “to leave no one behind” as the UN Secretary General has put it. This week, we at the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) launched a new report to address such challenges. As our report – Business and the SDGS: Challenges for Implementation - puts it, the analysis:

“…offers a challenge to the notion that business can be a transformative force in development but also rejects the argument that it cannot be a constructive one. There is space in between. Perhaps the issue is not so much what business can do for the SDGs but how the SDGs can add impetus to broader debates on business responsibilities and the wider rules that shape the market.”

The report goes into depth as to how both governments and business can take steps to make development strategies more consistent with the rights of all people, in particular those who are most vulnerable. Creating a “pre- competitive” space – a notion most often understood in the context of joint corporate product research - can potentially help unlock the transformative force of business along with strong civil society involvement and government oversight as a bridge to greater cooperation and positive development results.

Accepting this idea at the level of international policy is one thing but actually demonstrating pre-competitive behavior in action at the local level is another. We at IHRB have been working with our partners to develop such pre- competitive space for dialogue and joint action within specific local contexts where we have established regional centres: Myanmar, Kenya and Colombia. New multi-stakeholder engagement has developed in all three countries, which we see as the beginnings of such pre-competitive space. The actions involved can take various forms. Often it is local managers, sitting with their civil society and home and host government counterparts to share knowledge of due diligence, prevention and mitigation and to increase levels of transparency. A key tool in these processes has been our “Sector-Wide Impact Assessments” which identify the range of human rights related impacts (local, aggregate and cumulative) of specific business sectors and make this information a public good. This work doesn’t remove the need for active government involvement, such as requiring project-level social and environmental impact assessments, but does inform their content and increase their value.

The coming months are critical for the global policy agenda with the SDGs and the Paris Climate Change conference in December setting the framework for the time ahead. We can expect further work from the G7, G20, EU, OECD and ILO on responsible business conduct, and in particular global supply chains. The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development (BRICs) Bank and other regional initiatives also provide important opportunities for greater alignment around international standards and increased collaboration between all investors. I’m hopeful that real progress is possible. It is has been encouraging to witness firsthand Chinese companies working with their western competitors in third countries actively sharing knowledge about addressing human rights risks associated with their operations. Let’s hope governments will recognise such efforts and do much more to make business and multistakeholder cooperation on human rights and sustainable development the norm and not the exception.

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