Focus, collaboration and proof of concept: notes from a Singapore Round Table

Image result for sdgs"And so to Singapore last week, and joining a group of corporations at a “Round Table” event convened by Business Fights Poverty and Elevate.

This was the third in a series of formal discussions that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) had instigated, to support the scale up of new initiatives for responsible business practice.

The basis for our dialogue in Singapore was straight forward enough: what can DFID, and other government donor agencies, do to stimulate and enhance the implementation and impact of responsible business practice, as part of the collective efforts underway to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – listed above)?   

Over the past 9 years, and regularly attending regional events that sought to define and share good practice on this very topic, I was delighted to be back once again and diving into the various issues and opportunities that resonate in this space.

I’ve written time and again about the role of the private sector across the international development arena. The triumvirate of social, environmental and economic returns that are possible, when big business flexes its muscles, is palpable.

All too often, however, as colleagues at the Round Table confirmed, things are not done well.

Things – be they corporate policies or practices that have an impact on the environment, on worker’s rights, or on the gender disparities which exist in the workplace – can be done badly (poorly designed, not sustained) or they can be done for the wrong reasons (in the interest of public relations rather the interest of doing good).

And, to reach any form of scale – whether scale is defined as “positively impacting on more people”, or is seen as “finding a solution to an issue”, or instead is defined as “multiplying impact through the take up of future government policies” – to reach any form of scale, our group in Singapore was clear on one thing: that businesses have to stop starting up multiple pilot projects.

A pilot can be a valuable exercise, but one trend identified at our gathering was that companies can too easily fall foul of setting up pilots and not committing the resources, or finding suitable partners, to then move a pilot into the mainstream of their business. Instead, what can happen is that more pilots are initiated. And so things cycle round.

What was noticeable, too, during the course of our time together at this particular table, was the conviction displayed by participants about the barriers they face, when trying to meaningfully move the dial internally when it comes to responsible business practice.

We didn’t dwell on the myriad of definitions that exist to describe the many facets that “responsible business practices” can take on. This is an evolving lexicon and, in this regard, what are the real differences between models, initiatives, behavior and practice? Answering that question could send you into a spin of countless round tabling.

Our group, instead of tackling these semantics, were more concerned with the following practical recommendations:

  1. Businesses need to determine which are the most compelling SDGs and issues that they can impact on positively rather than try to address all things at once;
  1. A company cannot ever hope to design new approaches for their social and environmental responsibilities if they do not know from the outset how they are going to measure the changes these new approaches will make;
  1. No new approach (be it linked to a partnership, an activity, a policy etc) will survive inside of a large corporation unless all decision makers inside of that corporation are sold on the approach and the value add it brings on those triple bottom line indicators (I used social, environmental and economic above but “ESG” – economic, social, governance – is also commonly adopted by companies for similar purposes);
  1. No one organization (a company, a Government, a civil society group or non-profit entity) can take on any of the SDGs alone – therefore, only via a collective attempt to tackle the SDGs will we ever hope to meet their targets.

Again, much has been captured on this last point – countless times on these pages in fact – and last week the sentiments around collaboration were strong.

Our event took place in the middle of a week during which Singapore had already staged the Responsible Business Forum’s Conference on Circular Economy, and we were followed the next day by an Elevate Forum on Responsible Tourism.

Singapore very much prides itself on both its ability to convene at the regional level, but also its informal and close-knit practitioner groups from across different sectors.

Right now, there are signals from governments and large corporations that this relational and networked way of getting things done may yet hold one of the keys to opening up more possibilities for tackling SDG issues.

The role that donor agencies can play are many. Convening, and facilitating collaboration, is definitely one that stood up to the scrutiny test of our group last week. Whether via regional platforms or single issue events, this role of brokering alliances, and driving the “business case” for organsiations of all types to find mutual ways of working together, is too critical not to put resources behind it.

In many ways it can only be the world’s donor agencies, with the vantage points they have, and their influencing acumen, that can help strengthen the “proof of concept” so often lacking, in terms of demonstrating that cross-sector alliances, and strategic partnerships between public, private and development sectors can make sizeable dents into the SDGs.

In 90 minutes it was these elements that surfaced quickest to the top of our particular discussion.

I can only advocate more of the same, and a renewed commitment by every organization, whatever its mandate, to get involved and to continue to find solutions together.



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