Updated: Feb 22, 2021
by Ronald De Jong
The covid-19 crisis is a focusing event. The author John Kingdon saw such moments in time as windows when new issues can enter the policy agenda; what is essential to our societies has been redefined.
We have an increased appreciation for vital workers like health workers, teachers and the police. We have suddenly realised that health and education are essential public institutions. We experience that the collective is more important than the individual is. We all need to be well to be well ourselves.
The covid-19 pandemic painfully exposes the underlying vulnerabilities in society. In Africa (but also in other developing countries), the covid-19 crisis’s effects mainly manifest in an economic crisis, resulting in poverty and malnutrition, thus decreasing and disappearing perspectives. Covid-19 potentially throws already vulnerable countries years back with respect to their development.
Making progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals is further complicated, and their realisation by 2030 is now in danger. This – in effect – potentially constitutes an existential threat for humanity. We cannot let this happen. Leaders in the public and the private sector need to redefine and intensify their collaboration. They need to display collective and individual responsible leadership to ensure we seize the covid-19 crisis as an accelerator of the much-needed transition to a ‘new common’, as envisioned by the global goals rather than leading to a de-prioritisation of these goals.
The role of companies
The crisis forces business leaders to rethink the role of corporate enterprise in society.
Fortunately, the pendulum seems to be swinging back from ‘creation of shareholder value’ as the primary goal to a more inclusive model where companies’ purpose is to allow the company to flourish reasonably and responsibly, taking into account all stakeholders’ interests.
The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) increasingly serve as a compass in this respect. Companies can contribute to the realisation of the SDGs by transferring knowledge, setting standards, paying taxes, innovating in impact business models, committing to SDG-compliant procurement criteria and being accountable in all transparency. Large asset managers (banks, insurance companies, pension funds, and similar) are increasingly making their investments in companies with a clear commitment to the SDGs.
Leaders in the private sector will need to lead the transition within the means of what this planet and its people have to offer. This idealism is realism. Leading a company responsibly based upon a clear purpose will ensure its long-term relevance in society and therewith secure its very existence.
There is hope: a new generation of responsible leaders is already redefining a corporation’s role in society. In 2019, the most powerful US corporate lobby, the Business Roundtable, jettisoned the ‘Friedman model’. The chief executives of 181 public companies pledged to care for the environment and create value for all their stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, and society) and distribute the created value more equally (to be fair is to share).
The role of governments
In the public sector, ‘taking responsibility’ for vulnerable countries is often taking shape in the form of ‘traditional’ development collaboration. Confronted with the economic consequences of the covid-19 crisis, many governments are tempted to prioritise national interest and apply austerity concerning development collaboration budgets. This is very concerning.
The aim of development co-operation should be to make the countries in Africa (and other developing countries) more self-sufficient and self-reliant; in economic terms, the creation of local added value (and thus employment) is crucial in the context of sustainable development. In particular, employment and employment growth are – however – pre-eminently created by the private sector.
Governments have an essential role to play in enabling the private sector to invest in innovation that fuels economic activity in compliance with the SDGs. In her book The Entrepreneurial State, the leading economist Marianna Mazzucato elaborates on the interplay between government and business in initiating and stimulating innovation and economic activity. This requires a long-term and consistent set of industrial policies to accelerate the transition to the 2030 society, as envisioned by the SDGs.
However, the focus on ‘trade’ cannot replace the need for ‘aid’; it needs to complement it.
Traditional development aid will have to continue unabated, with the importance of continually evaluating and – where necessary – adjusting the effectiveness of policies and measures taken. Co-operation between governments, businesses, multilateral institutions, knowledge institutions, and NGOs is paramount in establishing and maintaining a sustainable social protection system in Africa and other developing countries. An integral approach is necessary to ensure that all public and private sectors unite and join forces on the road to a resilient society that is well on realising the global goals by 2030.
Responsible and sustainable leadership
No one can do this alone. We need governments, multilateral organisations, universities, non-governmental organisations, multinational corporations, and small and medium-sized enterprises to join forces. In all these organisations, we need a new generation of leaders that critically reflect on the pressing issues that confront us all, which put the collective interest above the individual interest of their organisations (or themselves) and reflect upon the implications of their actions for society.
Leaders lead with purpose and accelerate the transition towards a ‘new common.’ A new common where the realisation of the SDGs is not the responsibility of ‘them’ or ‘us’, but of ‘me’.