Why the Private Sector Must Kickstart Global Partnerships

Close-up of a globe in grass
Close-up of a globe in grass

Is it possible to reverse climate change? Alleviate poverty? Abolish discrimination or corruption? Reaching these goals will require collective efforts involving not only grand promises but implementation, along with the human and financial resources to set in motion solutions for a better world, as laid out by the new Sustainable Development agenda.

These apparently utopian visions are attainable through resource mobilization via local and global partnerships. Such interconnected and human-induced problems could be dealt with through the joint intervention of all parties involved.

Such efforts are encapsulated in Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which calls on all sectors to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development." We have reason to be optimistic since registered initiatives in support of sustainable development goals already surpass 1,700.

As a social entrepreneur crafting models for sustainable development, my main endeavor is to generate partnerships and engage stakeholders from all levels to mobilize their resources and match them with social needs. This requires working to shift management practices to a more responsible attitude, and encouraging and equipping various stakeholders to take bold actions for social change. We have been involved in impact measurement of investments for local and regional development and have observed that partnership programs including public, private and civil institutions have greater impact on societal improvement.

The 2015 Sustainability Leaders survey figures are noteworthy to understand the level of ambition of various bodies for progress on sustainable development. Both national governments and the private sector are expected to spearhead the sustainable development agenda, but their performance continues to be viewed as poor by expert stakeholders across all sectors in 82 countries. Conversely, while NGOs, social entrepreneurs and academics are not expected to be the core drivers of progress on sustainable development, experts rate their performance very high. In contrast to 2012, when experts viewed the United Nations as an organization that should lead but was also thought to be performing poorly relative to other actors, new results now place the UN among those best positioned to lead the agenda.

The SDGs have mutated from the Millennium Development Goals to become an extended, inclusive version of development reflecting the drastic transformation the world is encountering. In this new agenda and its 17 goals for the next 15 years, it is hopeful to see that the "3P" (people-planet-profit) umbrella has shifted to a "5P" one (people-planet-prosperity-peace-partnership). Reconciling profit with prosperity hints at the arrival of conscious companies, conscious states and conscious people. It would certainly be revolutionary to see companies becoming activists/agents for sustainable development and social change.

A remarkable example is a recent initiative targeting the improvement of vocational education system in Turkey to feed the labor market as a medium to help decrease the rising youth unemployment issue. The program, launched by a major Turkish holding company in partnership with the Ministry of Education and civil society organizations, consisted primarily of a seven-year scholarship and internship program granted to 8000 vocational school students covering all 81 cities of Turkey. My firm stepped in and devised a coaching program for more than 400 employees from 21 companies belonging to the conglomerate. Company volunteers were to be equipped, trained and monitored to provide school coaching for students to improve their personal development skills. The program became a quick success and started to be showcased as a case of private sector contribution to sustainable development.

The initiative's success lay in the design of the program but also at its implementation. The company team leading the program acted like a civil society organization staying focused on the social impact and constantly thinking of involving more organizations positioned to improve the program activities. During its last phase the program led to a policy framework for vocational education and became a partnership model for other initiatives. When the conglomerate's seven-year commitment ended, the program was transferred to an association working to promote company volunteers and through them, the program continued. Today, it has expanded to 45 companies in Turkey.

This type of approach, where the private sector is leading change, has to increase. We must recognize the private sector's ability to be impactful considering their immense resources and extensive ecosystem. As Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, stated in a UN report summarizing progress in achieving the MDGs, "leaders and stakeholders in every nation will work together, redoubling efforts to achieve a truly universal and transformative agenda. This is the only way to ensure a sustainable future and a dignified life for all people everywhere."

All parties (public, private, civil society) have their own interests embedded in their nature. The mission should be to get them in the picture by converging interest areas and making them feel that they serve for a bigger purpose. Witnessing the rise of a culture of collaboration will be worthwhile; hoping as well to be one of its shapers.