In recent times, a number of articles have been written to explain what localizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mean. Billed to be achieved by 2030, the 17 SDGs were launched by the United Nations in 2015 as a roadmap for global development at all levels of government and governance. Going by this understanding of the SDGs, a number of experts have stated that localizing the goals is about ensuring Local Governments’ effective involvement in the implementation of the goals. This makes logical sense, considering that Local Governments are fundamentally the closest to the affairs of the everyday common man, who make up the largest cluster of stakeholders facing most of the challenges the SDGs were set up to address.
My submission however is that this thinking only addresses the aspect of government without paying attention to governance from a more holistic context. A major group of key players required for the achievement of the SDGs are not in Government. They are in business and according to the United Nations, and other global commissions and institutions set up to support the UN’s 2030 sustainable development mission, the private sector has a central role to play in this mix. In fact, it has been established that without the leadership, skills and resources of its private sector, no nation can successfully achieve sustainable development.
Looking more closely, a number of the SDGs are addressed largely, if not solely by the private sector, with the government only serving as umpires or enablers as the case may be. Take Goal One, No Poverty or Goal Eight, Decent Work and Economic Growth as examples. It is a known fact that businesses are the key drivers of wealth and job creation. When you visit regions without thriving businesses, the direct result you notice is poverty, unemployment and high levels of underdevelopment.
How then can the private sector effectively contribute to sustainable development? The hallmark of the private sector is entrepreneurship. The private sector is made up of people who have identified specific problems, which they are either solving directly, or through investing their resources into powering other people’s solutions. Whichever route they choose, the focus is on the return on investment.
By it’s natural make-up, the private sector cannot actively contribute to sustainable development except there is a compelling business reason to do so. It is very easy to talk about doing things because it is the right thing to do, which of course is right. However, without the business mindset, the sustainability matrix is incomplete. There is indeed a reason the three Ps of sustainable development are People, Profit and Planet. The economic aspect of sustainability cannot be neglected and this is largely a burden shouldered by the private sector.
Thus, considering the need for increased focus on the role of the private sector in sustainable development as it relates to governance, we need to ask an important question: what does localizing the SDGs or sustainable development mean for business?
It means adapting global best practices to our local nuances. In practice, what this means is that in a country like Nigeria, diversity in the workplace, for instance, will have little to do with reporting the variety of nationalities working within an organisation, except of course the organisation is an MNC. Even then, why would it matter to Nigerians that a multinational company has Indians working for them in Nigeria?
Amongst other issues that diversity addresses, it will be more about tribal diversity. Is your bank tilted towards a certain tribe, employing based on favoritism without recourse to merit? Are you running your organisation based on man-know-man, focusing only on short-term face saving? In effect, localizing the goals will be about transposing sustainability issues to our local and cultural context at a relatable level for our market in a way that creates sustained value and ensures long-term business success.
The private sector is skilled with making money. In fact, they excel at identifying opportunities and monetizing solutions. The challenge is that the way business has been run over the years has been unsustainable. We see it in the level of economic disparity between the rich and the poor, in the level of global environmental degradation, in the restlessness of our youth and the warming up of our climate. While this is not primarily an African problem, our vulnerability heightens the negative impact of the consequences on the continent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed what we have always known, often admitted but not done enough about: most African nations have unbelievably weak economic systems, fuelled by many factors including corruption. In spite of our natural and human resources, and the number of businesses on the continent, there’s a huge infrastructural deficit and high levels of household poverty. Most African countries have not been able to effectively implement lockdown measures, even though survival depends on it, because the economies are not structurally resilient enough to withstand such pressure.
Entrepreneurship provides the building blocks for economic progress and has indeed been applauded as the messiah of most developed countries’ financial prowess. However, without building businesses that can effectively localize a well thought through sustainability framework like the SDGs, Africa will continue to grapple in the darkness of poverty under the weight of underdevelopment.
Our local African businesses need to understand that times are different today and there is a better way to do business in a manner that creates shared value. This is not about sharing part of the profit made in charitable contributions or philanthropic feats but about how it was made in the first place. Organisations must fully appreciate their roles as sustainability drivers who meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
While making this transition to a new way of doing business might seem challenging, it is not impossible. It requires innovation and a new level of thinking that goes beyond profit to incorporate considerations for the people and the planet. When done right, the trade offs will also be minimal with the gains enormous. In fact, according to the commission on business and sustainability, there is 12 Trillion Dollars worth of economic value to be unlocked within the SDGs by 2030. Businesses that make the switch to sustainable models now will be those that will lead the future, both on the continent and on the global scene.
As much as sustainability makes business and economic sense, while driving innovation and differentiation, the goal is not to have business leaders just jumping on board to be a part of the bandwagon. It is about a more holistic value: sustainable businesses make sustainable economies. Without a thriving private sector, a nation will only continue to strive, making marginal progress, if any. It is therefore in the best interest of everyone, that we not only have more businesses spring up on the continent to create more jobs for our ever growing youth population, but that new and existing businesses entrench sustainable business strategies into their models. Verily verily I say unto you, Africa cannot rise above its present misery if its private sector does not work, and sustainably so.