UN's private-sector phobia prevents it from hitting its lofty goals

UN's private-sector phobia prevents it from hitting its lofty goals
© Getty Images

It is increasingly evident that the international community is not on track to deliver the expected results under the Paris Agreement (as well as the broader U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) or the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The ambition and scale of these programs cries out for involvement, investment and leadership from the private sector.

ADVERTISEMENT

So why, at a moment when governments and international organizations should be actively seeking ways to encourage business to step up, is the private sector being accused of having a “conflict of interest” or of actively seeking to upend global consensus? 

Global policymakers are being urged by some governments, activist groups and U.N. staff to freeze out the private sector from meaningful engagement in key international deliberations.

These calls have come in the context of the U.N. climate talks, at the World Health Organization and in numerous other intergovernmental forums. They reflect a deep misunderstanding of the profit motive, the nature of innovation and the importance of markets in catalyzing action toward shared goals. 

Broadly speaking, the “myths” about business influence and the role of the private sector fall into six distinct categories. Let’s dispel them one by one.

Myth 1: Since business seeks profit, its interests are inherently at odds with the public interest. 

Businesses cannot succeed in societies that fail, and businesses have a direct stake in secure, healthy, prospering communities and customers. Successful businesses create jobs, pay taxes to national treasuries and provide for needs and wants of consumers.

Businesses that are not making profits are much less likely to invest in innovation and other necessary sustainability related policies and actions. 

Myth 2: Business involvement in inter-governmental deliberations must be “managed” as a “risk.” 

Over the years, more and more actors from across society have become involved in the U.N.’s climate and sustainability debates. This is a good thing. In response, international bodies have taken steps to address concerns about conflict of interest for all groups, including the private sector.

However, assuming ill-intent on the part of one of these parties — the private sector — discourages business involvement and engagement. 

Myth 3: Having business organizations in the room results in “undue influence” and “interference” with policy outcomes.

Well-designed, effective and efficient policies depend on well-informed policymakers. For this reason, involvement of business technical expertise and real-world experience is a critical element throughout international sustainability deliberations. It helps to identify challenges, define solutions, carry out policies and assess the effectiveness of actions.

Myth 4: Business is unaccountable and operates in a non-transparent manner, and it must therefore divulge confidential information.

Business is subject to abundant government oversight and legal requirements at the national level, and it faces intense scrutiny from investors and other entities. Moreover, many companies provide additional reporting about their environmental, social and economic policies, practices and performance.

In short, business organizations and their members are already among the most “transparent” interests involved in inter-governmental forums.

Myth 5: Business has a disproportionate influence in the U.N. already, crowding out other important interests.

In most U.N. forums, all stakeholder groups are subject to similar requirements for accreditation, registration and participation. There is no preferential access accorded to business.

In general, business organizations are just one grouping among numerous interests that also represent labor, women, youth, gender minorities, indigenous peoples, local authorities and others — and they are usually in the minority in terms of numbers of representatives.

In fact, at many U.N. forums, business representation is so restricted that it discourages smaller companies and entrepreneurs from developing countries from participating.

Myth 6: Business-funded research is inherently biased and thus unacceptable as a basis for policy making. 

Businesses have significant cutting-edge research, technical and innovation resources at their disposal and regularly work in partnership with academic, scientific and U.N. entities on cooperative research.

Innovators, engineers and researchers from the business community are a deep talent pool and important resource as governments design systems-oriented policy responses.

Policies and actions to prioritize and respond to sustainability challenges should be based on the fullest scientific and technical information and reviews, and no peer-reviewed credible source should be ignored.

Where multilateral forums arbitrarily disqualify or dismiss private-sector sources, they subtract important information and findings. 

Tackling these myths is important now, because private-sector support and participation is essential if we want concerted global action to achieve the desired results.

What’s more, disregarding input and insight from one sector of society in the context of U.N. deliberations runs contrary to principles of effective governance and stakeholder consultation that the most effective national governments pursue at home. 

In short, business needs to be at the table because business is part of the solution. 

Peter M. Robinson is president and CEO of the United States Council for International Business.