The United Nations usually partners with governments or non-governmental agencies in its mission to encourage sustainable development around the world. But over the last decade, the organisation has come to recognise – and appreciate – the value that the private sector adds when it comes to spurring innovations influenced by consumer trends, especially when it comes to more environmentally-friendly business practices. It also has the knowledge and capacity to facilitate and implement projects faster than the UN or even government.
Associate business editor
spoke with UN resident co-ordinator for TT
and partnership officer
about the organisation’s partnerships with the local private sector and how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can help influence corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Tell me, how did this first come about?
Marina Walter: We talked a lot about it for four decades (at the UN) but I would say in the last ten years we really started (developing it). We started branching out and talking informally to some CEOs, if they would they be interested in working closer with us to see what areas of development were best suited to TT and which they would like to tackle. These conversations have been growing nicely.
My belief is that at the end of the day if you want a new innovative idea, it comes from the private sector – not usually the UN or government because that’s not our (specialty). The private sector’s business model is to find out what the client needs, have their hand on the pulse.
So innovation comes from there. They also have a much bigger pool of talent. And the UN and the government can bring them together to facilitate these innovations. That can be very powerful for the country.
How does this arrangement parallel the UN’s global efforts to get the private sector involved in sustainable development?
MW: We're trying to mirror what has been pushed for at the global level. First of all, you have SDG 17, which talks about partnerships – with civil society and governments, yes, but especially with the private sector. Because if you look at the bill that it will take to finance the SDGs, you need the private sector – you need their brains, their ideas and also the financing. So SDG 17 was already targeting them.
In TT, to give you an example, coming out of covid19, the Government has the Roadmap to Recovery with a focus on food security. We have the Food and Agriculture Organization as part of the UN network working with the Ministry of Agriculture. Now we bring in CAF (the Andean Development Bank).
So what are the next steps? What is the business case for food security and rejuvenating agriculture development? We’ve started talking to some private-sector entities like BPTT and Massy and we are trying to create a sort of coalition – a private-sector goal-creating initiative – that can help the chances of success be much higher. It's the chance for small farmers to get support to make a meaningful dent in terms of agricultural production that could lead to food security.
Are there particular sectors you want to focus on? What are the criteria for choosing your partners?
MW: I think definitely agriculture is an important one.
Education, especially coming out of covid19. Part of our team, via Unicef, has been working with the Ministry of Education, looking at revamping the educational setup – how teachers are trained; how children access online schooling; how the future of education looks.
We're also now organising a big data forum that will take place virtually in December. That's another area where you can look at digitalisation – the issue of open governance and cyber security.
Data in general is an issue across the Caribbean. In Trinidad you either have lack of data, or the data is there but we can't access it or it's not linked between different ministries. So from the beginning, data was part of our discussion with the private sector.
That’s why we came up with this big data forum to have private sector and government as well as other stakeholders discuss the issues and bottlenecks and legislation. We have participants from Amazon and Google coming in as keynote speakers and sharing their analysis on what are some of the very practical ways the private sector can support the country in its development vision.
In a way, I think they're completely aligned but this sort of engagements don't happen enough. Maybe it's still an issue of trust, or not speaking the same language. And that's something that needs to be built.
You have a couple of private sector entities with a lot of foresight here in sectors like the environmental space, renewables – you have a lot of private-sector enterprises that have already and they're almost charging ahead of the government. So how do you bring them in the same in the same room? And that's what we're trying to do.
How do you convince the private sector to get on board? Do they see the value in the projects?
Mark Thomas: Getting them involved was surprisingly easy.
I think they view Trinidad as a closed system because it’s an island and they are a very important part of this system. They've been doing these things a lot of these projects on their own – BPTT’s Miped programmes, which helps framers access financing, has been happening since the early 2000s, for example. Digicel has been working with people with disabilities also from the early 2000s.
A lot of these things have serious developmental implications...It's just that they've never framed it in terms of the SDGs or aligned it with Vision 2030. Massy is trying to eliminate plastic bags from their stores and they've been selling electric cars to reduce TT's carbon footprint and to sort of be ahead of the curve when electric cars become the norm. And they have recognised that doing these things is a good for the country but also, more importantly, good for their bottom lines.
Where we are adding value is to help them frame it in terms of a global developmental agenda.
That said, they've also decided to take the next step to look at things from a new way that they may not have considered it before, like big data, for example. When you think about it, you use your cell phone, and it goes through a mobile network – a private-sector company with a repository of information that can have tremendous developmental impact.
So how can we use this information for the benefit of the country? Because if you don't have good information planning can be difficult.
Of course change is hard, and businesses are sort of naturally conservative because change can lead to uncertainty in revenue generation. I think they realise that the world is changing around them, though, and they themselves need to change in order to remain relevant and viable.
We've had a big disrupter this year, obviously with covid19. Tell me, how has that affected the willingness to participate and how has it spurred innovation?
MT: We have a core group of over six businesses that are very committed to working with us and remain continuously engaged with us. When the pandemic was declared we met with them, and they identified three areas that they foresee being a problem for TT going forward.
One was food security, because covid19 shut down global supply chains and it might take some time for them to get back to normal. Over the short to medium term we have had to rely more on our own food production to feed ourselves.
Then there’s education. The world, almost overnight, went from being more analogue to being almost entirely digital, and Trinidad, to some extent, is unprepared for that transition. They're working with us and the government to identify where the gaps are in education as regards the provision of skills and what is required to change in the education system, and developing an investment plan.
The third thing was their CSR. Businesses get a bit of a stick, but they're actually quite generous in this country. Just the energy sector on average gives about US$12 million a year. So it’s a lot of money. Miped from BPTT has been something like $100 million since it started.
This philanthropy can be more effective and in line with the development priorities of the country. And that's where we have been stepping in to help them.
How would you summarise this initiative and its importance?
MW: Sustainable development is all about business. There are three pillars of sustainable development, which is people, planet and profit.
I think for too long we've focused on people and planet, very social things and environmental things, but they don't really work unless you work on the profit thing as well. You can help a farmer use less chemicals, but if it doesn’t make him money, in the end he will abandon it. I think working on the profit part of it is an essential component and without it, it would never work. And of course, to do that you need to engage the private sector.
Editor’s note: Business Day is featuring four of the organisations that are in talks with the UN to refine the private sector partnership programme. Last week, we featured BPTT’s Miped programme, which helps farmers in Mayaro access micro financing to develop their business. This week, we spoke with the Digicel Foundation about its work with special needs children.