Our Leaders Summit: The worst of times today! The best of times yet to come?

Herman Mulder

Advisory Board Member, Global Compact Network Netherlands

The UN Global Compact Leaders Summit on 1 -2 June had an objective in the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals:

“The global event aims to empower business leaders at every level to take collective action and inspire future leaders to embed a sustainability mindset in their work. From addressing global themes and trends to the resources and tools needed to accelerate progress in your own business, culminating in a celebration and a shared vision of “The World We All Want”. “

This annual event allowed all regions to report on their progress and address several specific themes, such as Ukraine. The key themes included social issues, such as human rights, labour, children’s rights and youth interests, inequality and gender issues. Other prominent themes were SMEs, marketing for sustainable growth, just and inclusive transition, planetary boundaries (and natural resources scarcities) and “SDG Ambition”. There were also sessions on governance and financing the SDGs.

It seems that the Leaders Summit covered the most relevant subjects; however, the question lies in what the dominating perspective should have been: (1) celebrating what we have achieved so far, (2) setting a plan on what still needs to be done by 2030 and the obstacles therefor, or (3) re-energizing the commitment to the SDGs and start the process for beyond 2030 with an active design role by young generations, as UN-Secretary General Guterres called for in his 2021 “Our Common Agenda”.

I hope that our participation will help us sharpen our pencils for what we may need to do in Global Compact Network Netherlands (including our international value chains).

We recognise that the SDGs are foremost for businesses a significant and positive opportunity to celebrate achievements that should inspire us for the better and faster (together). But we should also consider that such upscaling and accelerating cannot be done by business alone. This perspective was missing in the program. The same challenge was apparent during the recent “Verantwoordingsdag” at VNO-NCW; while discussing the CBS “Brede Welvaart” report. The outlook, relative to our ambition, is more cloudy (in particular in the context of our international footprint).

Against this background, one must look forward to the first two sessions on Day 1: “State of the World” and “Business Leadership in Troubled Times”, during which UN leadership set the stage for the Summit and a re-energized ambition.

Further, follows my personal reflection on the critical components of the objectives of the Summit.

“Troubled Times”: ‘The UN Secretary-General has recently spoken about today’s “perfect storm”. The World Economic Forum 2022 was full of doom, gloom and uncertainty, as we fear that we are leading to the risk of adversity and paralysis. Post-COVID-19, “Building back better”, or rather “Building forward together”, was not taking off, despite the reconfirmed wisdom and imperative that universal, global issues need to be addressed jointly on an integrated basis. As seen by COVID, climate change, biodiversity loss, increasing social divides, and significant social and natural consequences are global issues that require mass participation. After 30 years of globalisation (with the SDGs and “Paris” as marquee), geopolitical and economic fragmentation and polarisation are now the order of the day.’

How can we recreate a renewed spirit of mutualisation of solutions in the tradition of the SDGs?

Economic slowdown, rising inflation and interest rates, continued public health issues, and the Russian-Ukraine war is putting severe pressure on all peoples’ living costs, pressure on public budgets, and debt-service problems in developing countries. These challenges require careful planning. It takes good sailors (us) and new co-navigators (youth) to excel during the “perfect storm”, and those who stay the course during the storm are more likely to succeed. With the SDGs, we are given a patchwork plan that allows us to do better and excel. Storms make better sailors and better fishers!

How do we stabilise, also in the interest of peace and justice (SDG#16), the effects of worldwide economic slowdown and recession?

“Business Leadership” discussed the recent developments in the business and investment community (notably in the USA). It suggests headwinds for stakeholder capitalism, ESG standards, SDG implementation, and reporting, causing some major investment firms and corporations to stagnate. There are other manifestations of “pain in the chain” (the cost of “greening”, juridification) and increasing regulatory oversight. In such a context, governments should develop positive incentives for businesses to stay the course and facilitate innovation, scale-up, and acceleration.

In other words, how to crowd in business? “Making Markets fit for SDG Purpose” should be a key policy initiative for any government through innovative legislative interventions (removing obstacles) and catalytic financial instruments (de-risking, return-enhancement; role of pension funds by more direct investments). This theme was notably absent.

How can the UN urge governments to initiate a “Making Markets fit for SDG Purpose”-initiative? (similar to the 2017 BSDC Report “Better Business, Better World”)

‘“State of the World” discussed how the SDGs have proven their great value as a comprehensive, universal, global agenda. It is a narrative; it is a SMART-target setting for governments, businesses, civil society, and public accountability is serving its purpose. However, we are behind schedule. New insights (GDP growth is a misguided driver) and our horizon of 2030 have become more of an intermediate milestone for the essential systemic changes that are needed in the long term. 2050 as the horizon is becoming more appropriate. Also, the transitions underway have intended and unintended consequences, which we need to map and collectively act upon.

The UN Secretary-General presented to the September 2021 UN General Assembly his “Our Common Agenda Report” and called for a September 2023 “Summit of the Future”. To improve the “state of the world” with a positive, shared perspective on “The World We Want,” i.e. by 2050: zero emissions, waste, biodiversity loss, poverty, planetary boundaries, etc. The way to get there is through just and inclusive transition, the inclusive governance (including diversity, accountability, no green-washing) and adequate financing thereof (revisit the Addis Action Agenda!), we need a blueprint for 2050 of “The World We Want” and an extended action plan.