Billions of people in the world are shut out. They have no membership in the financial institutions of life that allow those in richer nations to save, invest, borrow, build, and trade freely. Tens of millions of people, a huge share of them children, have been left stateless by war and poverty; many more live lives of subsistence in remote or rural regions of the world. As transformative as the Internet, mobile payment systems, and microlending have been in bringing many of the “unbanked” into the global economy and in lifting standards of living, too many people still have little or no access to the systems that have brought prosperity to the developed world.
On Dec. 2, nearly 150 of the globe’s most prominent leaders in business, the nonprofit sector, labor, media, and strategic problem solving gathered in a Rome hotel and promised to change that. And more remarkable, they put those promises to paper.
Among those assembled were the CEOs of companies employing nearly 5 million people around the world (including Barclays, Dow Chemical, Flex, IBM (ibm), Levi Strauss, Monsanto (mon), Novartis (nvs), Royal Dutch Shell, Siemens, United Technologies, Walgreens Boots Alliance (wag), WPP, and dozens of others). Joining them were the heads of major consultancies (Accenture, BCG, Deloitte, Insigniam, McKinsey, and Teneo) and some of the biggest and most creative charitable organizations on the planet (BRAC, Environmental Defense Fund, Ford Foundation, International Rescue Committee, Last Mile Health, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Partners in Health, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Save the Children International).
All had gathered for the Fortune + Time Global Forum (read our coverage here). And they vowed to work with one another to ensure that the one-fifth of the world’s citizens who lack a legal (officially recognized) identity—and who are therefore shut out of the financial grid—are brought in to the system. They promised to increase access to inexpensive and secure mobile banking platforms and to develop new forms of insurance for small businesses to reduce risk and build local wealth. They promised to sharply increase the amount of investment capital going to people and places that now get little of it. And they pledged to develop and report on “material metrics” that track the social and environmental returns on their corporate investments.
That all these commitments were made over the course of a day is remarkable in itself. But they didn’t stop there. Breaking into eight working groups, teams of CEOs and labor leaders, management gurus, and NGO directors promised to make 22 distinct commitments in all. (Read the full report here.)
They pledged to do a better job of protecting the planet, reduce their own companies’ energy use and environmental footprints, and accelerate efforts to fight climate change. In proposals that were, at times, surprising in their specificity, they agreed to support meaningful carbon pricing (by way of taxes, caps, or other economic mechanisms), help smallholder farmers, reduce food waste by half, and set ambitious water-management goals.
They promised to help rebuild the global workforce to better match the knowledge economy being born around it—retraining millions who have been left behind by the forces transforming business so that they might thrive in what IBM CEO Ginni Rometty calls “new collar” jobs—a realm that is feverishly evolving as the old hierarchies of blue collar and white collar, technical and professional fade into irrelevancy. The gathered leaders promised to redouble efforts to bring primary education to all children—making a particular effort to send young girls, the children of migrants, and the rural poor to school. And they recommitted to embracing inclusion in their own ranks.
In the area of public health, the pledges were, if anything, more ambitious still—with business and nonprofit leaders vowing, among other things, to work together to train 750,000 community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions of endemic poverty. In addition to providing basic “frontline” health care to a million children, this corps would focus on combatting persistent health threats, such as malnutrition and vaccine-preventable diseases. “Seven out of 10 of the world’s poor live in rural areas,” says Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez, outlining the massive challenge (read Jimenez's thoughts on how to make healthcare more accessible here). “It’s important that we do our part to help build sustainable local health care systems.” To that aim, Novartis is offering to the cause help in financing, logistics, technology, and communications—necessary for developing clinics and hospitals.
How all this came to be is one of the defining stories of our time: Many have lost faith in business as a force for good. While the two sweeping trends of the past half-century— globalization and digitization—have brought huge economic gains and enriched many, they have also pushed the “haves” further away from the “have-nots.”
The Fortune + Time Global Forum was an effort to reverse that polar force—reinforcing the message that the interests of business are not ultimately at odds with the interests of the world it serves. The forum was an opportunity for companies themselves to show they could do good—working in concert—and do well by doing it.
It was a message, indeed, that found a welcome from Pope Francis, who blessed each of the forum’s attendees personally at the Vatican on Dec. 3. “I would like to offer a particular word of thanks for all that you are doing to promote the centrality and dignity of the human person within our institutions and economic models,” His Holiness told the delegates in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace. “I encourage you to continue the work you have begun at this forum, and to seek ever more creative ways to transform our institutions and economic structures so that they may be able to respond to the needs of our day and be in service of the human person, especially those marginalized and discarded.”
Then the Holy Father offered what may be the most important challenge to the corporate titans gathered:
“I pray too that you may involve in your efforts those whom you seek to help; give them a voice, listen to their stories, learn from their experiences and understand their needs. See in them a brother and a sister, a son and a daughter, a mother and a father. Amid the challenges of our day, see the human face of those you earnestly seek to help.”
Whether or not the global business community can do that, of course, is a story we will continue to cover.
A version of this article appears in the January 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "The Business of Humanity."