The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) address a gamut of many prime issues that countries around the world have been trying to solve for a long time now with varying degrees of success. Take the case of India. Alleviating poverty has been an objective from the day the nation was born and “Garibi Hatao” (Eliminate Poverty) was an election winning slogan 45 years ago. Yet poverty persists.
The predominant belief has been that government will be able to eliminate poverty through its programmes. But 70 years after independence it is safe to say that this by itself cannot be the solution. There has also been the conversation that business corporations must give back and many corporations have done so. While there have been many, moving successes; in aggregate, the needle has moved slowly.
The desire to get corporations to make a difference has resulted in the famous new legislation where corporations must use two percent of their profits for pre-specified socially responsible work. Given that infinitely larger resources have not been able to solve the problems being addressed, this two percent stipulation can have marginal impact at best.
How then can corporations contribute to achieve the SDG goals? Let’s look at one area in which India has succeeded. We used to be a ship-to-mouth economy where hunger was the norm and not the exception. But through excellent government programs and vibrant agricultural businesses we have become a food sufficient nation with ample buffer stocks.
In each of the SDG areas, there are government programs already in place. Many businesses, through their core activity, have a positive impact on the SDG goals. For example, the tractor, seeds, fertiliser and pesticide businesses have done more for agricultural productivity and therefore elimination of hunger in India than all CSR programs in this area combined. The key to achieving SDG goals lies mostly in the space of economic value addition.
Companies do more for poverty alleviation by providing employment to hundreds and thousands of individuals than all their CSR programs combined. Scale and impact comes from a sustainable business model that serves one or more of the SDG goals. Perhaps this is where the opportunity lies for governments and also the United Nations.
A regime that enables sustainable businesses addressing socio-development issues raised in the SDGs is more likely to succeed as compared to one where the government tries to use the exchequer to solve deep rooted problems. Or even one where corporations make a token contribution towards solving the problems.
The combination of the International Solar Alliance, Skill India, Digital India, Make in India etc. will have a far greater salutary effect than sundry departmental budgetary provisions announced on budget day.
This doesn’t mean CSR has no role to play. It helps create a lot of social innovation, mobilise communities to help themselves, empower underprivileged communities to become self-sufficient and bring a sense of identity to the poor and the downtrodden. But on its own it doesn’t have the firepower to solve the problems that the SDGs are focussing on. This is where the core business model and the purpose of the corporation needs to step in.
The former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, summed it up at the United Nations Global Compact Leaders’ Summit, “The objectives and priorities of the international community and the business world are more aligned than ever before… for business to enjoy sustained growth, we need to build trust and legitimacy… for markets to expand in a sustainable way, we must provide those currently excluded with better and more opportunities to improve their livelihoods.”
Anirban Ghosh leads the sustainability wing at Mahindra and Mahindra as the Chief Sustainability Officer. He has been working with Mahindra Group since 1999.A gold medal winning engineer from Jadavpur University, Calcutta, Ghosh has pursued doctoral studies in Marketing Management at IIM Ahmedabad. He enjoys music, reading, travelling, driving, cricket and tennis. He is an active public speaker and has represented the nation at the Festival of India across multiple nations.
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