How can Business and the UN Work Together Towards the Sustainable Development Goals?

As people from around the world start to focus on how to implement the Sustainable Development Goals–the new ambitious vision for ending poverty and protecting our planet– they are exploring new ways of engaging and partnering with each other to achieve greater scale and systemic impact. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which sets out the SDGs envisions a “revitalized global partnership for sustainable development”.

This discussion will bring together representatives from business, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F), the CSR Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School and Business Fights Poverty to explore the following questions:


1. What is the business and development case for increased UN-business engagement?


2. How can business most effectively engage in the SDGs, and how can the UN most effectively engage with business?


3. What should the priorities for action be in 2016 to strengthen UN-business partnerships?


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Click here to download the Report "Business and the UN: Working Together Towards the Sustainable Development Goals".

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Many thanks Paloma. Look forward to continuing to work with you and your team, and other great colleagues in UNDP, UN Global Compact and other parts of the UN system. It is really valuable for those of us outside the UN system to know there are professionals like all of you who understand both the development community as well as business community. Your bridge-building roles - and entrepreneurial roles - are crucial!

Thanks everyone for the conversation and look forward to continuing it offline - and above all, thanks to all the companies that are getting engaged and putting serious resources - people, investments, capabilities, and other assets to work on demonstrating that business has a leadership role to play in partnership with others, both in terms of acting responsibly and mitigating negative impacts and in terms of created shared value and opportunity. 

Paloma Duran said:

Thank you to all of you. It was a very engaging conversation. We really had a lot of good food for thought. We are just starting the implementation of the Agenda 2030, its only been 2 months so far. We have 15 years to make it happen. We can achieve this with all your support, insight and ideas.

Again, thanks to the companies from the SDG-Fund Private Sector Advisory Group:, and Jane Nelson (Harvard Kennedy School) as well as Zahid, Graham and all the Business Fights Poverty team. Please keep sending your comments, we must keep this discussion alive.

Any innitiative in Brazil?

That is very true about learning from failures.  We don't see any post mortems on projects that fail to meet their goals.  We don't do that in engineering.  If a bridge collapses we study it to find out why.  Then new standards are set to be sure that type of failure does not occur again. 

Think of plane crashes.  We study them in depth to determine what went wrong and how we can avoid them. 

We would be so far along if the same actions were taken on these programs.  Many times we see the same thinking and ideas that did not work years ago come up again.  They are tried again with the same outcome. 

Maybe the United Nations can create something similar to the National Transportation Safety Board.  Outcomes could be cataloged and recorded.  This would give us a knowledge base on which to improve our impacts. 

In business we have the saying "fail fast, fail often" so you can quickly learn.


David Wilcox said:

At the launch of the SDGs during UN Opening week ReachScale participated in a half dozen conferences and listened to 130 plus presentations.

One of the key obstacles in engaging the private sector is the lack of sustainable models that are testing or operating at scale. Not one presentation at UN Opening week talked about being able to deploy donations or capital sustainably. 

You can not have sustainable development goals without sustainable models. These sustainable/scalable models are not typically found in governments, corporations or NGOs. So to build partnerships these organizations need to engage with the sectors that have these sustainable/scalable models.

Quote from David Wilcox's article:

In evaluating the over 100 presentations at these events, I was struck by the following:

  • Few presentations gave any indication of serious learning from the wins — and losses — during 20 years of MDG work. A delineation of the models that work (i.e. more sustainable and scalable) is missing.
  • In the absence of learning frameworks, presenters reiterate the same problems, now expanded to 17 goals and 169 targets. The result is a plea for more resources to support the new SDGs without any evidence that those resources will be employed more effectively.

The core request at these events was for more than four trillion dollars per year to implement the SDGs over 15 years. This leads to two questions:

  1. How can you call the goals replacing the MDGs sustainable if they lead with requests for resources that are not?
  2. At the beginning of the SDG process, what should the world’s government, corporate and NGO leaders focus on now to make the new global goals actually sustainable?

Where are the Sustainable/Scalable Models?

Social entrepreneurs have offered these five critical solutions to the problem of making the Sustainable Development Goals truly sustainable:

  1. Recognize that commitments to achieving the SDGs must avoid Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: Doing the same thing and expecting different results.
  2. Replace unsustainable practices with new models that leverage under-utilized resources and other sustainable approaches.
  3. Redeploy resources from the inadequacies of donor, foreign aid and impact investment processes and into new models and leadership that move significant resources from unsustainable approaches to sustainable ones.
  4. Reinvent how organizations request and deploy funding by moving to scale solutions that are more sustainable than those that failed to achieve most of the MDGs.
  5. Reassess all investments, models and approaches. The most sustainable solutions must be aggressively adopted across sector and country boundaries, no matter their origin or disruption.

Increasingly, leaders are being asked to challenge the status quo. These leaders — often disruptors — no longer target seed stage or individual impact investments. The most impactful leaders know that pilots do not lead to scaling or to sustainability.

Social entrepreneurs thrive at risk-taking and from learning rapidly about what doesn’t work. These are the sustainable, scale-oriented models and management teams that are best equipped to handle significant capital and to shift how these goals could actually be achieved — shifting from unsustainable and un-achieved to sustainable and achieved development goals.

How to Make the SDGs Truly Sustainable: Social Entrepreneurs as Critical Achievement Engines

Thanks everybody for this fruitful discussion!

Hi, I'm completely new to this sort of thing, but have a vested interest as the Chairman of a medium sized forestry based essential oils company in Malawi,   so here goes: I am sure that for the UN to achieve sustainable progress in development means backing existing businesses who are already on the sustainable road but lack the resource to scale up . I think the best people to make the initial assessment as to whether a business is a candidate for support are the existing political organisations such as embassies or high commissions and the data they need to reach a decision could be defined in broad terms, much as a bank would do. Backing start ups is headline making but the harsh reality is that most never achieve sustainability. I would then like to see such identified 'producer' companies be supported by existing successful developed world companies with a desire to support the goals . This support need not be only money based and could involve many skills they have. However, funding is almost inevitably going to be required and taking a targeted approach at least means it has a chance of achieving the Goals we all want to see happen.

Dr Paul Clarke   Kawandama Hills Plantation  Mzimba , N.  Malawi 

please find attached link


it is possible to set up engagement mode between the business and development sectors, but, the United Nations must

1. secure the commitment of the member states (governments) to share space and not to compete with the private sector.

2. must provide sustainable business environment, upon which businesses thrives and profits are grown and in turn businesses respond by showing commitments to development through their corporate social responsibility program.

3. the likely hood of the multilateral system engaging directly with businesses(private sector). and develop an enhanced implementation framework, that gives accounts on the level of implementation and progress made.

Hi all, 

Great discussion, which I've just been catching up on!

I agree with some of the earlier comments about businesses needing more tools and resources to help us figure out what implementation of/alignment w/the SDGs looks like. 

There have a been a small handful of great publications on biz and the SDGs which have been my go-to's for the last several months, but - being in the middle of a sustainability strategy review, where we're aiming to align with the SDGs - it still feels a little bit like navigating in a sea of darkness. 

It is important that the SDGs become an action agenda for business, and not an organizing framework. That means going beyond looking at how companies already support SDG goals through existing initiatives and practices (an important first step, but not enough) to, as others have noted here, re-thinking business strategies, practices, models, etc. Speaking from experience, this is where the process 'SDG alignment' process becomes slower, murkier and more challenging to push forward, and where more support in the way of tools, publications and convening platforms would be extremely helpful as we move forward on this journey together!

Hi everyone!!! I am Paulo Bento and my main research interests are sustainability and development, with focus on poverty reduction. It is great to participate in this online discussion!!!

...and in conclusion...As the Chinese would say - "Talk does not cook rice" It is what is DONE than brings about change...For us at moladi it is what Abraham Maslow refers to as "hierarchy of needs" - "base of the pyramid product" - Fight poverty unemployment and crime producing food and shelter

"The key to a truly lasting, sustainable positive impact starts with houses. Owning their own shelter provides people with a sense of pride and belonging which in turn has positive effects on their sense of self‐esteem and a sense of opportunity, self‐worth, dignity and hope for a better future for themselves and their children." 

A big Thank You to Zahid and BusinessFightsPoverty for creating this opportunity to share ideas and become changemakers


I believe building Cooperative societies business leadership could guarantee for the success of Sustainable Development Goals and contribute for the ambitious UN vision of ending poverty and protecting our planet. Cooperative societies have both economic and social goals, the challenge with the Cooperative societies as a sector in developing countries is members of Cooperative society lack common business vision and synergy. if the UN consider them as business entities work on creating common business vision and synergy among members of the Cooperative society, improve leadership business management skill of Cooperative society, definitely can contribute for the success of UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

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