How multi-stakeholder collaboration can be a catalyst for inclusive sustainable development

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The challenges facing our world today, particularly climate issues, call for the collaboration of the private sector, academia, and international networks to achieve solid objectives, particularly as it pertains to incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) despite challenges and opportunities.

At the AUC school of Business Forum, a session titled “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: A Catalyst for an Inclusive Sustainable Development” tackled responsible business, climate change action and Net Zero initiatives through a discussion with top field experts from varied backgrounds. Moderated by Associate Professor of Accounting Ahmed Abdel Meguid, the session’s experts highlighted how collaboration among the private sector, universities and international networks can be conducive to inclusive and sustainable development, as well as the practical implications of the upcoming COP27 slated to be held in Sharm El Sheikh, and Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) as the new normal for business.

Coca Cola’s Director of Public Affairs in Africa Emily Waita noted the complexity and challenges presented by the modern-day landscape, with the threats and opportunities presented across the world met with much social activism and consumer awareness in Africa. These new challenges, she says, “demand a very different mindset and [although] these are things we used to dismiss in the past, we cannot do so anymore.” She notes the COVID-19 pandemic as a key example of how businesses can and should build back better. Women’s education, poverty, and geopolitical turmoil are among the risks for Africa, Waita explains, particularly in light of challenges such as currency fluctuations.

According to Waita, global challenges call for a need to innovate. “We’ve seen that there’s been an unprecedented rush even on the continent, to introduce regulations that impose costs on greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable business practices that could see companies that don’t comply face a lot of fines or risk paying higher taxes,” she contends, arguing that, on the other end, innovation can help find solutions to major crises, such as food waste reduction, the sustainable management of forests, food solutions for low-income markets, and affordable housing.

Speaking from a business perspective, Chairman and CEO of DMG Mountain View Egypt, Ayman Ismail, argued that the “sustainable aspects of business…are not a mere luxury” despite once being perceived as such. In fact, “ascribing to those elements of sustainability are the way to grow. Most right now, in any industry, would prefer to buy products from companies that are committed to sustainable action. And most of the employees would prefer to work for companies that have a purpose rather than operating solely for profit,” he says, noting that this can’t come from the private sector alone. Additionally, Ismail noted that the regulatory environment must develop to keep up with the pace of things.

Former Lebanese politician and Dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Sharjah, Dima Jamali, affirmed that business schools have a crucial role to play in training tomorrow’s leaders to tackle the sustainable development goals, starting from the classroom. “We need a different breed of leaders who really passionately embrace and understand sustainability and are able to make a difference in that space,” she says. Jamali also lauds the UN 2030 agenda comprising of 17 goals for sustainable development as ambitious, noting how it strives to leave no one behind with respect to human rights, human dignity, and the promotion of equality and justice.

Unfortunately, Jamali argues that we still stand behind on much of this. “If we look at where we stand in relation to the UN 2030 agenda, we still need 257 years to close the economic gender gap. Every year, we throw 8,000,000 tons of plastic in our oceans. Child labor remains pervasive; one in ten children are forced to work and global warming is increasing significantly,” she notes, also highlighting the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all of this, deepening inequality, and furthering poverty, with over 500 million people worldwide losing their jobs. Consequently, according to Jamali, businesses must realize the responsibility they have on their shoulders and take bold steps to play a role in driving systemic change.

Meanwhile, Dean and Director the Henley Business School in South Africa, Jon Foster-Pedley, referred to the scrutiny that capitalism is met with in the modern day. “For many years it has been a sort of capitalism focused on competitive advantage and profit rather than prosperity at its heart,” he says, “I would ask if business schools actually challenge the very precepts and governance issues that they believe so strongly create sanity when in fact they are creating insanity… If you want to capture people’s minds and their values, you must be able to articulate well.” In doing so, he says, emphasizing the role of activism in social impact is key.

Acting Director of the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Guy Midgley, added to the conversation by noting that sustainability can actually come quite in line with profitability. For instance, he notes how companies that take on renewable energy targets often see their profits jump because they’re saving money. Almost agreeing with Jamil, Midgely affirms, “I fully agree incrementalism is not going to get us a solution. We can’t wait 257 years for anything to happen. Justice delayed is justice denied. I live in a country which exists because of civil disobedience.”

Egypt’s very own social responsibility icon and Former Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Laila Iskander echoed similar concerns, noting the 11 million tons of plastic being dumped into the ocean per annum. “Companies that produce packaging materials generate business revenue to the tune of $400 billion a year… The cost of cleaning up the ocean is 100 billion, i.e. 25 percent of their turnover,” she says, and consequently,  these companies should genuinely uphold to ESG standards they might claim to uphold to be doing their share in cleaning up the trash, particularly given the crucial role that the oceans play in environmental ecosystems.

As Midgely sums up, “let’s stop the corporate interests from blocking progress,” a threat he says is clear from U.S. politics to pervasive greenwashing campaigns.

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