Thomas Gass, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and interagency affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations, talked with Global Finance about the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals and how the private sector can help.

Author: Efraim Chalamish

Global Finance: What makes the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process unique?

Thomas Gass: Bringing in the voices of over five million individuals and interactions with 193 member countries gave rise to a shared vision of humanity for 2030 [the SDG]. It is also the future scenario of globalization. In my view, this is more important than the UN Charter. It creates a framework of 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets that describe where we want to be in 15 years. It must become a new social contract between governments and individuals, between service providers and rights holders. 

GF: How can the private sector be part of it?

Gass: There is an unprecedented level of participation by the private sector in this process. Last week, we had a private sector forum with captains of industry, who all said they will take the process very seriously and agreed they should be invested in sustainability, not just social responsibility. Some companies will contribute financially toward achieving these goals and targets. Others may contribute directly, for instance, by ensuring decent jobs for both women and men.

Since this agenda is aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and reducing inequality, the next step for the private-sector is to recognize entrepreneurs who stay put even when production costs rise.

GF: Are there concrete ways companies can engage with UN institutions?

Gass: The main private-sector platform is the Global Compact. CEOs are invited to sign the Compact and commit to 10 UN principles. Once a year, they communicate how they have implemented these principles. Both big and small companies are part of it. If they do not follow through for a certain number of years, they can be delisted. Sustainable Development Goals include building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation. It’s a breath of fresh air for the UN Industrial Development Organization. The UN can promote and support regional cooperation around such infrastructure projects.

GF: How do you work with other multilateral financial institutions and agencies?

Gass: This process has been so strong that it has attracted the attention of these institutions. The objectives of the World Bank contribute to this shared vision of humanity. The new Chinese infrastructure bank is part of that as well.

GF: Investors are deeply concerned about global political risk and instability. How do the UN’s new economic goals address these fears?

Gass: In the past, these two worlds were separated. [But] one of our new goals touches on some important root causes of conflicts. It does not deal with all conflicts, and there is a continuous need for peacekeeping. But for the first time we have an agreement that includes a concrete definition of “leaving no one behind.” Many conflicts are driven by people who are left behind.

GF: How does the UN, and your team, respond to the changing technology and data landscape?

Gass: The agenda sets a new standard for inclusiveness and participation. The UN Charter has a new meaning in the new world of social media. We have to respond to people, and they want to know the results. In this new technological age, we need to better explore the new forms of data and how to integrate them into our work.


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