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The role of the private sector in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

Very often it is said that NGOs are anti-the private sector, that we simply don’t understand each other or that we’re just too different to be able to work together. So it was great to have the opportunity to speak in Brussels at an event organised by Friends of Europe* about the role of the private sector – and of all actors – in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and how we can work better together.

(Photo taken by Friends of Europe)

Importantly, before we embark on such a conversation, we have to recognise that the private sector is not a homogenous entity: there are many different types of companies, all falling under the heading ‘private sector’, be it an entrepreneur, a smallholder farmer, a cooperative, a medium-sized enterprise or a multi- or trans-national company with operations across the globe. During this panel we generally spoke about the multi-nationals, while recognising the huge benefits that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can bring in terms of employment opportunities and sustainable practices.

At Plan International, we often have occasion to partner with companies in our programmes, for example to create economic opportunities for young people, or to develop and use technology which can further their skills, their connectivity and so on. There are clear advantages to working with the private sector, for example owing to its ‘accelerator’ function for achieving the SDGs. But we must nonetheless ask ourselves, is this only a good thing? Plan International insists, in our engagements with companies, on high ethical standards and codes of conduct being met. Do other actors, such as those exploring public-private partnerships (or PPPs), do the same? Because if that is not the case, then indeed, there is a chance that human rights might be compromised, or violated, either through oversight or through pursuit of the profit motive at the expense of people or the environment. When one is talking about big infrastructure projects, for example, it is all too easy to forge ahead without paying sufficient attention to the impacts on communities, or without verifying where the key benefits of the project actually end up.

We would welcome more corporations showing leadership in gender equality – an issue that we take extremely seriously and are doing our utmost to help achieve. Companies need to put in place, both internally but also in their external practices and policies which promote equality between all people and which focus first and foremost on the most marginalised.

If companies are genuine in their desire to ‘do no harm’ and to promote gender equality, the rights of young people and respect for the environment, then partnerships between our sector and the private sector are possible. It is true, as was stated by panellists, that they take time to nurture, to build trust, to ensure that we are trying to achieve common goals, but each side has something to offer. Civil society is embedded in communities and seeks to ensure equality of opportunity and of outcomes. We are not trying to create growth per se, as are companies and governments, so our objectives can seem at odds. But companies most particularly can offer innovation, technology and finance.

Provided that companies operate in a transparent manner, pay their taxes in the countries of operation and respect international standards relating to people’s rights and the environment, then partnerships between CSOs and the private sector are not just possible, but are actually symbiotic. However, those conditions must be met.


*The event ‘The private Sector and Agenda 2030’ was organised on 20th November 2018 by Friends of Europe, more information can be found here: