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Reinventing failing growth model via sustainable development goals

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-04-2017 Veronica Lie

My first “real” job was at the United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK).

My role involved advocacy for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), at that time just a few years old. I worked with parliamentarians, civil servants, young professionals, academics and NGOs.

Wracking my memory now, I can remember only one interaction with business.

The only way we were going to reach MDGs, I thought at the time, was if governments forgave debt, increased aid and made trade fair—in spite of the money-grubbing machinations of business.

Six enriching years later I moved to Xynteo, in part to learn how the private sector worked. Now, it’s old news that we need both business and government to unlock the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor framework to MDGs.

What’s also clear now is that we won’t achieve SDGs unless market success is yoked to societal progress. The response to SDGs has been enthusiastic, with some of the loudest voices coming from business. There has of course also been criticism, mostly about the breadth and “wooliness” of the goals.

But in a recent blog, London School of Economics and Political Science’s Jason Hinkel calls SDGs “actively dangerous” because they “lock in the global development agenda for the next 15 years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes”.

First off, I completely agree that the prevailing growth model is failing. Predicated on the principle of making and consuming as much stuff as cheaply as possible, regardless of the consequences, it is not fit for a hyperconnected, resource-stressed world of close to 7.5 billion people.

We need a new model that drives value creation not just for the few but for the many, not just across quarters but generations. A model that works with the natural environment, instead of destroying it. A model in which commercial return is human return.

Businesses already know how to measure commercial return. Measuring human return is trickier. What if SDGs could fill this gap? What if SDGs could help rewrite the growth model by equipping business with a framework to change investment decisions?

A stretch? Perhaps. But there are encouraging signs. A recent study by Xynteo gauges how emerging business leaders in India view SDGs. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents said their organizations were at least aware of the goals, and of those already using SDGs as a framework, 58% reported seeing signs of commercial return. This proportion needs to rise, but these numbers bode well.

While SDGs can feel insurmountable, they’re not. We live in an age of abundance, with an enormous store of talent, capital and ideas. Corporate balance sheets of American firms alone hold more than $1.8 trillion, and there are over $12 trillion in bonds returning negative yield, demanding that investors actually pay to own them. Meanwhile, the planet has never been home to so many educated minds. We can do this if we want to. With new measures of success to drive the marketplace, we can fuse talent, capital and ideas together to create a growth model that is fit for our century. As Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs said so well: “We face a problem not of means but of ends.”

Proof of this potential is not hard to find. In 1996-97, the Serum Institute of India partnered with the World Health Organization and African public health officials to tackle a devastating epidemic of meningitis A in sub-Saharan Africa. In record time, they developed a vaccine at one-tenth the typical cost and have since vaccinated 235 million people in 15 nations.

I have learnt a lot since my days at UNA-UK about the power and ingenuity of business. In another decade or so, I hope to look back (with perhaps some surprise) at how far commercially thriving businesses have taken us towards the world envisioned by SDGs.

Veronica Lie is executive vice-president (strategy and systems) with Xynteo.

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