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UN Global Compact: Laying the foundation for sustainable, resilient and responsible business

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UN Global Compact: Laying the foundation for sustainable, resilient and responsible business

Zipporah Musau
From Africa Renewal: 
13 February 2022
(Supplied)
Ms. Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact.

Ms. Sanda Ojiambo is the CEO and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact that encourages businesses and companies worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies. She spoke to Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau about her top priorities. Here are the excerpts from part 1 of the interview:

Africa Renewal: You were appointed the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, mid-2020. How has your journey been so far? 

Ms. Ojiambo: Well, first, I was truly honored to be appointed to this role in June 2020. I had known the UN Global Compact from before, because I led sustainable business efforts in a Kenyan company that was a participant of the Global Compact. I had interacted with the UN Global Compact for about 10 years before my appointment. And over those 10 years, I gained a deep respect for the work of the Global Compact, and the role that it played as a North Star in guiding businesses on responsible business practices, as well as contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

When I was appointed to this role, for me it signified an opportunity to continue to widen the scope and the depth of the work that the UN Global Compact did. But also, to look at how relevant and responsive the Global Compact is on all of the emerging issues. 

As you know, June 2020, was right in the middle of the [COVID-19] pandemic. In fact, when I took on the role, I was at home in Nairobi, Kenya. And I spent the first two months working virtually with the team in New York, as well as our local networks globally. But the context of those first few months, obviously, was one of both deep economic and health turmoil, all around the world. It was also a good time to reflect on what the role of the UN Global Compact would be, during, through and beyond the pandemic, and what the role of business should be. It was both an exciting and challenging time to take on the leadership of the UN Global Compact, along with the opportunity to develop a new strategy and be responsive. 

How has the journey been thus far?

One of the first things that I did was to look at the opportunity to refresh the UN Global Compact strategy, and what the narrative of the Global Compact would be going forward.  I looked at this from the impact lens, how do we tell the story of the Global Compact’s impact after 21 years of existence? And how do we continue to center the unique core principles of the Global Compact, which are the 10 principles. We often call the 10 principles our DNA. It was an opportune moment to recenter around the 10 principles, also look at a strategy that would be more responsive to the global challenges as well as the global opportunities that the Global Compact had.

What does success in this role look like?

To position the UN Global Compact as the unique entity that deals with responsible business practices both internally, within the UN, as well as externally - in the business world. 

Success means having an organization that can respond to increasing challenges and opportunities for private sector engagement, and one that is able to increase its global footprint and increase its relevance to our business partnerships and our members and our business members as well.

What would you say are some of your successes?

I think that collectively we've achieved a number of things. The first is the development of the new strategy, amidst the challenges of working virtually and not being able to meet with our local networks. With broad consultation, both within and outside of the UN system and the business ecosystem, we developed a strategy for 2021-2023 that was officially launched by the UN Secretary-General in January 2021. And we've moved consistently towards the operationalization and implementation of that strategy. 

Going forward, what would you say are your top three priorities in this job?

A top priority for me is our programmatic offering and relevance to the private sector. Our ability to offer content that is responsive, as well as inclusive, to our broad membership - we now have close to 15,000 members. We need to be able to offer them content that helps them become more responsible businesses, and to really contribute towards the SDGs. 

The second is strengthening the capacity of our local networks, the establishment of regional hubs that bring us closer to the regions. 

The third one is growing our global footprint so we can truly mobilize business to where we need to be and building responsive ecosystems for change. Making sure that we are directing businesses and channeling business operations, processes, and systems to contribute to a more responsive business environment and also towards the attainment of the SDGs. 

So, we have the content, we have the framework, and our operations - these three need to lead to an impactful ecosystem that mobilizes the resources, the technologies, the innovations of the private sector in support of the SDGs.

You said you have 15,000 members? Would you speak briefly on what the membership looks like? Do we have any from Africa? 

The UN Global Compact is a membership organization. Companies sign up to join, and membership starts with a letter of commitment from the company CEO committing to uphold our 10 principles. 

Our membership is very broad and global ranging from large multinationals to small and medium enterprises. We also have what we call non-business participants. These could be academia, civil society, or other types of entities. We are present in over 160 countries, and we have local networks in 69 countries. 

In Africa we have 10 Local Networks, covering 13 countries and over 1,000 members. Africa is one of our growth areas – to strengthen our local networks, capacity, presence and bolstering the number of businesses we have on the continent. 

A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships, as you say, between governments, private sector, the academia, civil society, and others, built on set principles and values. What is the role of the UN Global Compact in driving this agenda?

I think we are at an exciting time, and I fully agree with you, we need that multi-stakeholder partnership. The UN Secretary-General has spoken a lot about this, and in the Our Common Agenda recently, that the private sector must take its seat at the table. Also, it was envisioned in the formulation of the SDGs. I think it's very clear that no one sector can achieve what we're looking to deliver on our own. It is crucial for the private sector and, it is our role as the UN Global Compact, to play that piece. 

It's really about this whole-of-society approach that we often talk about. Private sector brings many things to the table - innovation, technologies, speed to market, deep consumer insight, the ability to mobilize finance and assets to support initiatives. It also brings people to the table. Also, the private sector has been an important force in terms of galvanizing collective action around issues such as financing for development and climate action.  

As I mentioned earlier, though, the UN Global Compact is a multistakeholder organisation and we also have partnerships with academia and civil society. And this really enables us to develop a platform for business and industry associations to engage with policymakers and governments as a whole.

What then is the role of the UN Global Compact?

Our role is to mobilize the private sector around out 10 principles to respond to the development agenda, and to create a  platform where the private sector can make meaningful contributions either to government, or to national development agendas as a whole. We mobilize businesses across sectors, we mobilize businesses within country, and we certainly mobilize businesses for relevant issues and responses.

The 10 Principles of the UN Global Compact

They are derived from: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

Human Rights

Principle 1: Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and

Principle 2: make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses

Labour

Principle 3: Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining

Principle 4: the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour

Principle 5: the effective abolition of child labour

Principle 6: the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

Environment

Principle 7: Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges

Principle 8: undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility

Principle 9: encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies

Anti-Corruption

Principle 10: Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery

Coming from a private sector background yourself, what experiences did you bring to this position on how to engage better the private sector?

Before I was appointed to this job, I worked for close to 12 years for Safaricom, a Kenyan company well recognized as an innovator in the mobile telephony industry - building up their work around sustainable development and social impact. 

It was very clear to me that the private sector has a number of offerings that truly support sustainable development. It is possible to orient private sector products, services and operations, such that they make meaningful contributions to the development agenda. It is important to be able to mobilize financial contributions for important things such as humanitarian responses, and many other needs that that often arise. 

I think another complementary and very long-term and sustainable approach is how companies shape themselves to deliver on the development agenda and certainly on responsible business. Safaricom was one of the first companies in Africa to integrate the SDGs into its work. The company expressed its overall business targets and business outcomes through the lens of the SDGs and through the transformational work that mobile telephony could bring to the SDGs.

Safaricom took a very broad approach to looking at responsibility, it wasn't just about what the company did in its headquarters, but what it did through supply chains, and the extent to which it could inculcate the responsible business practices through the supply chains. The company played a key role in building an ecosystem of responsible business leaders who spoke boldly about the need for climate action, gender parity, anti-corruption and other issues.  During my time there, I spent a considerable amount of time engaging with the UN Global Compact and a number of other UN agencies both in country and at the Secretariat level.

But what was really important was also looking at the impact of the collective - what the collective group of companies could do to address and influence key issues such as human rights, labour standards, and the environment. It was through the interactions of the UN Global Compact that I got to really see and participate in what happens when a collective group of companies comes together and takes a stand on issues such as climate action, or when they work to develop legislation around corruption. 

What are your plans for Africa?

We have an exciting and truly ambitious plan for Africa. This is important because Africa really is an important growth frontier for the private sector, and it has a youthful and innovative population. 

For us, the opportunity that lies in Africa is to see how we can strengthen the private sector to be three things: to be market-ready and more resilient; to be partner-ready; and to be investor-ready. These three will help create a more competitive advantage for the private sector with and through the support of the  10 principles of the UN Global Compact

The UN Global Compact’s new strategy seeks to accelerate business action to achieve the SDGs and more ambitious climate targets. How will you go about this?

At a very practical level, our 10 principles provide a foundation for sustainable and responsible business. And we're encouraging all companies to embrace and use them to guide their businesses going forward. We firmly believe that once businesses have upheld these principles, they are then better able to contribute to the SDGs. 

For example, a business that has a commitment to anti-corruption, and does not condone bribery, extortion, and corruption in any way, shape or form, can participate with a clean conscience in public private partnerships (PPPs), and will make sure that the persistent loss of value in tendering doesn't exist through its supply chain as a whole. 

Companies that are ready to take firm action on human rights and labour rights, then therefore create a workplace that is respectful to young mothers and families, are keen to look at the issues of a living wage as opposed to a minimum wage and are very aware of everything that is required in terms of a productive work environment. We also look at critical issues such whether there is gender pay parity.  Ultimately this will contribute to some of the SDGs. 

Do you foresee any challenges in the implementation of the strategies? 

We are still a relatively young organization - 21 years old – so we are at the stage where we are trying both to grow, as well as deliver on the strategy. I think we're well-positioned to be able to do this, but certainly at a macro level, the pandemic has impacted the private sector and indeed economies in many ways. So, for us, it's about seeing how we can support companies to be more resilient through the pandemic, but also support them to continue to deliver on our principles and on the SDGs.

Second, the private sector doesn't operate in a vacuum. It is very important for us to be able to partner in a conducive manner with government. The private sector is keen to come to the table and contribute to national development agendas. But again government has to set the enabling environment for the private sector to flourish, has to set in place regulations that allow a level playing field, and then create a partnership opportunity and platform for the private sector to play. 

For us, it is important to have a great symbiotic relationship with all the stakeholders in a country to allow our work and our strategy to flourish.

Lastly, the pandemic has affected businesses worldwide. How has it affected you at UN Global Compact – how has it changed your agenda, and affected your operations? 

The pandemic period has been very interesting for the UN Global Compact, because surprisingly, over the last 18 months or so we’ve witnessed our highest levels of growth in membership - we've grown by over 3,000 members.

Whereas we, didn’t anticipate this, it has signified a couple of things. First, is that in terms of crisis, and turbulence, businesses do look to the UN Global Compact for leadership, for tools and for guidance. We have also had the highest rates of inquiry about our tools on business resilience, we've had the highest rates of attendance on some of our digital platforms. For us, it really signified our continued relevance. And this engagement and interest have come both from very large multinationals, as well as smaller SMEs.  

In terms of business, we have heard from existing businesses that they have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.  Millions of SMEs have closed down in Africa and around the world, and people have lost jobs. We heard those stories. However, we have also heard about how some of our content and tools are helping businesses bounce back or set themselves back on a path of resilience. For example, in Kenya, one of the things that the local network did was a series of capacity building sessions with women-owned businesses to look at what resilience would mean for them, and what they need to put in place to survive through and beyond the pandemic. 

For the Global Compact, it's been a period of growth. It's been a period of tooling for resilience, and deep reflection on the role of the private sector. Actually last year, there was a study done called the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2021which showed that the private sector was the most trusted sector globally. And this was the first time this has happened, being ranked higher than government, than the NGO sector and the media, among others. A lot of trust has been put on business because of the pandemic. 

We've seen a lot of unique and innovative partnerships. If you look at the COVID-19 response, and the way that many unique partnerships were built between public and private sector, and even within the private sector. We saw competitors come together to deliver solutions that made sense for the pandemic response.

What we've also seen through the pandemic is that business as usual really cannot be the option. We need to look at ways in which businesses stay in business and contribute to societal transformation. We've seen a myriad of examples through the pandemic period. 

What is your message to the companies and organizations in the UN Global Compact about the future?

What we would want to tell our members is that we have a great strategy that truly positions us to enable our businesses to bounce back and to lay the foundation for sustainable and resilient business. 

Our strategy, tools, and processes are here to support business growth, and business resilience, and to support businesses to take their role as a strong contributing partner to national agendas, and certainly to the sustainable development agenda. 

Businesses also need to continue to rally around key issues, raise their collective voices as advocates and take bold, ambitious and credible actions to ensure strong outcomes in support of the SDGs.  Financing for Development, Climate Action and Social Inequalities are priority areas for business action. 

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