Inclusion was the buzzword of the OECD Forum in Paris yesterday (May 31), with the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and responsible business conduct as main topics.

Speakers pointed out that achieving the OECD’s 17 SDGs by 2030 could cost up to US$3tn a year, and that financing, not just from official development assistance (ODA) and financial development institutions (FDIs), but also from the commercial financial sector, was key to their success.

Additionally, structural reforms are needed to maximise the potential of development financing: Save the Children International CEO Helle Thorning-Schmidt noted that the same amount of money leaves Africa through tax avoidance and corruption as lands on the continent through ODA every year.

For that reason, the OECD is developing an action plan and scoring system to regularly survey countries’ sustainability progress towards the goals, which encompass social, environmental and economic aspects.

We are losing out to the values and business practices of Wall Street, dominated by short-term shareholder satisfaction, which often leads to irresponsible behaviours. Philip J Jennings, UNI Global Union

“What will make the SDGs work is a process of accountability,” said Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty. He added that gender equality was another key to achieving SDGs: “At every level of income and wealth, women and girls do worse. That has equity implications because it’s simply wrong to leave half of the population behind, but more than that, we’re re-learning that you just can’t get things done if you don’t make sure that 100% of the population has the opportunities it needs.”

Peter Robinson, president and CEO of the US Council for International Business (USCIB), highlighted the role that the business community has to play in achieving the SDGs. “We will need business in a big way and business is ready to step up,” he told the audience. The USCIB is set to present its main recommendations to create the right environment for businesses to act sustainably to the OECD this week. These include: improving business environment through structural reforms, helped by OECD tools and frameworks; developing mechanism to mobilise greater private finance towards developing countries; and improving public-private dialogue for development.

“It’s a lot easier for multinationals to be participating in this, but we are discussing ways to get SMEs more involved,” Robinson added.

The importance of educating smaller companies within supply chains was also highlighted, with Maria Olivia Recart, representative, Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD (BIAC) and vice-president of corporate affairs, Americas, at BHP Billiton talking about the mining giant’s initiative to train 250 suppliers to “world-class” standards by 2025. “What is difficult is to go above and beyond the guidelines. Multinational companies have the obligation of leading the way,” she said.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi inspired delegates with his fight against child labour and slavery and made the case for a lot more responsible business conduct standards. “We have arrived at a juncture where governments cannot work alone. We have to create an environment where they can work hand in hand with business and societies. We have proven that we can put an end to child slavery,” he said.

But some were pessimistic about the potential of ethics to overtake profits in business decisions. Philip J Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, explained: “The energy we spend trying to get businesses to behave responsibly is enormous. We are losing out to the values and business practices of Wall Street, dominated by short-term shareholder satisfaction, which often leads to irresponsible behaviours. We have a problem of compliance and an issue with the consequences of non-compliance. Principles are known, but behaviour is lacking.”