Open for business: the sustainable development goals need money—the right kind of money

Written by Allan Lerberg Jørgensen, Director of Human Rights and Development at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Everyone agrees that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda needs investment by businesses to succeed. Here are two recommendations to ensure that it attracts the right kind of investment.

UN member states are in the process of finalising a new global agenda for sustainable development. They have agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals that, if achieved, will ensure a life in dignity for everyone within planetary boundaries. These goals are hugely ambitious, but also sorely needed.

They are also, if we are serious about reaching them, extremely expensive. While states appear to agree on the content of the SDGs, it’s not clear how they expect to raise the estimated US$5 trillion to US$7 trillion in annual investment they are going to cost. In June, governments will meet in Addis Ababa to discuss how to fill the gap and who should pay. Much of the discussion on this issue so far has focused on mobilising the private sector as a key provider of capital, jobs, technology and infrastructure.

There has been less discussion, however, on what kind of private-sector investment is likely to promote, rather than undermine, the content of the SDGs themselves. If we acknowledge that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda is open for business, how do we ensure that the SDGs attract the right kind of business?

A global standard for business practice

For once, we have just the tool for the job. The UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business are a global standard for states and companies to ensure that investment doesn’t come at the cost of human rights. The Guiding Principles consist of 31 concrete rules that define the responsibilities of governments and companies for preventing human rights abuses in business operations.

Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 following six years of global consultations, the Guiding Principles are the world’s only global, inter-governmental standard on responsible business. The Guiding Principles represent one of the most significant outcomes from the UN system in recent years, and enjoy the support of a remarkably wide range of actors, from the Coca-Cola Company to the International Finance Corporation to Amnesty International. Several countries have already launched National Actions Plans to implementing the Guiding Principles, and over 20 more are currently in progress.

The clarity and consensus of the Guiding Principles makes them perfectly suited as a point of reference on the role of business in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. The clock is ticking, but there are two concrete ways in which this connection could still be made:

First, national implementation of the Guiding Principles should be recognized as a development objective in its own right. States cannot meet Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 12 (the ones dealing with sustainable economic growth, production and consumption patterns) without ensuring that businesses respect human rights. The Guiding Principles provide rules and recommendations for determining whether this responsibility is being carried out. The UN Statistical Commission is currently deliberating on which indicators can best measure the progress of the SDGs. The presence of a national action plan to implement the Guiding Principles would be a relevant and measurable indicator under SDG target 12.1, which deals with national programmes on sustainable consumption and production.

Second, the Guiding Principles should be recognized as a necessary means to ensure that human rights are protected in public and private development finance across all goals. The SDGs can only succeed through a huge investments in jobs, essential services and green technology. The Guiding Principles provide a globally authoritative framework for ensuring that these investments do not undermine the very goals they are intended to advance. The Guiding Principles should be inserted as a basic safeguard in agreements related to the means of implementation for the SDGs.

A call for action to make the connection

The UN Secretary General, in his synthesis report on the post-2015 development agenda, calls for investment policies that are in line with the Guiding Principles. Similarly, the preparatory Elements Paper for the Addis Ababa conference on Financing for Development identifies implementation of the Guiding Principles as a key vehicle for strengthening the sustainable development impact of private-sector investment.

Now is the time for states to put action behind these encouraging words. The Guiding Principles, unlike any other framework, provide a recipe to ensure that sustainable development is financed without undermining human rights in the process. This is a floor of duties and responsibilities that we need to see reflected in the outcome documents from Addis Ababa and New York. Without such a floor, investment cannot be sustainable.

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