How corporate America can change the world

September 24, 2015, 4:05 PM UTC
USA,New York,United Nations Building
Doug Armand—Getty Images

Over the summer, Fortune released its Companies Changing the World list, an important new ranking of 50 companies around the world that are doing well by doing good. There is much to admire and emulate from this list. And given the extraordinary scale of efforts needed to address the massive challenges facing the world today, it’s critical that major corporations take notice and engage in this space.

For far too long, the private sector’s efforts in sustainable development have largely gone unnoticed due in part to the fact that these efforts typically take a long time to seed and bear and fruit, and due to a random “kitchen sink” approach with little strategic focus.

When it comes to the companies on the Changing the World List, what is needed now is prioritization of where more companies and other stakeholders can engage and then an in-depth sharing of what works.While clearly there is much that companies are doing to address a number of issues affecting society globally, what’s missing from the current discussions is focus and prioritization of efforts. There are a number of challenges where the private sector is positioned to be a game changer and when they focus their efforts and engage in meaningful partnerships, real impact is achieved.

A good example is the Millennium Development Goals with respect to combating HIV, one of the true success stories of the last 15 years. There was focused attention, resources and interests aligned across all sectors. Major organizations from the public, private, and social spheres took the initiative to drive change, and worked in close collaboration to leverage the strengths of each partner.

There’s also evidence of what isn’t working or hasn’t worked over the past decade. One area where this is strikingly clear, though rarely understood at a deeper level, involves hunger and finding ways to feed the planet. Ask most experts in the space and they will say that we produce enough food globally to feed humanity. However, there are tremendous post-harvest food losses resulting from a number of storage, transportation and market linkage issues that are entirely fixable. While the post-harvest loss is claiming as much as 50% of the world’s fruit and vegetables, most food security initiatives focus on increased agricultural yields which, even when achieved, are barely making a dent in world hunger. This is but one area that’s not working. If companies focus attention and resources on solving the real problem, theycan make huge strides to affect global hunger.

This week, the United Nations will ratify the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious agenda detailing the greatest areas of need globally. To create the current list of goals, the UN consulted an unprecedented number of private sector companies around the world in addition to governments and leading NGOs.

As I’ve shared in a previous post for the Council on Foreign Relations, the 17 goals fall into four lead need areas: human rights, health, human & natural environment, and economic opportunity & employment. What is required now is for companies to take a hard look at each of these four critical need areas and determine what are the top 2 to 3 issues where the private sector is best positioned to focus efforts and take the lead to drive impact through 2030.

In addition to isolating which areas to focus on, we then as a community need to profile the practices of the companies that are achieving significant impact to understand what works and how they do what they do so others know where to start and what they should replicate. Take GSK for example, which is ranked #6 on Fortune’s list. They are being recognized for their vaccine innovations in developing countries. What many readers are unaware of is that for years their program has worked closely with local governments and NGOs to identify and address the greatest needs as well as to develop the local healthcare workforce and infrastructure.

GSK supports the entirety of the healthcare ecosystem where they engage, and an internal employee volunteer program, known as PULSE, underpins the innovation and continuity essential for success long-term. Or look at IBM (AKAM) which is ranked #20 on Fortune’s list. IBM is taking the initiative to reinvent education and workforce development through their PTECH programs in high schools and the Watson’s Teacher Advisor program. This holistic approach is yielding incredible results and insights into how we can deploy technology in a way that achieves measurable results for every aspect of the learning cycle. These are but two brief examples of what’s working when companies are engaged in sustainable development initiatives. Imagine if the private sector committed to prioritize and focus on a handful of critical challenges, and to replicate what we know already works. That would certainly make it near impossible to narrow the Companies Changing the World list down to just 50, but what a changed world it would be! The time to start is now while global attention is focused on supporting the SDGs and success stories like those on the Changing the World list.

Deirdre White is CEO of PYXERA Global.

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