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Sustainability leadership as a currency for UN SDGs and beyond

The United Nations (UN) strikingly continue in championing institutional leadership role in driving Sustainable Development (SD) agendas to create  a world free from human discomforting issues, including extreme poverty, hunger, war and, more recently, digital violence. In 2000, the Kofi Annan led-administration of the UN spearheaded and implemented the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, in September 2015, the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, successfully nurtured and secured global endorsement for the Paris Agreement, which led to the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[1].

The SDGs are seventeen set of goals with sub-targets aim at addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges confronting humanity whether in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, UK, Canada or Australia. SDGs are often referred to as agenda 2030, which mean that in 14 years and 7 months from today there shall be signs of ‘no poverty’ or ‘no hunger’. The varied goals make possible the opportunity for all peoples, nations or institutions to contribute to its realisation however small the impact may be.

 

At the moment, one of the driving factors capable to facilitate the accomplishment of this legitimate global task is leadership – not just leadership but pursuing a leadership on the basis of sustainability ethics and principles.

Sustainability by leading chooses selflessness, flexibility and empathy over greed, wickedness and self-seeking to promote inclusiveness and shared human values, in this case, sustainability through intelligence. Minute corridors of corruption do not exist in the “skill sets” of sustainability leaders.

The aspect of leadership that really moves agenda 2030 from mere promises to reality is finance. Financing SDGs and ensuring the funds generate maximum outcomes bring into focus the requirement of leading by sustainability practice from financial institutions in both corporate and governmental worlds. Noting well that every fraction of money invested into SDGs can bring in profits in cash or kind whether targeting people with disabilities, greening industries, rescuing 3.5 million girls from prostitution, trafficking or hazardous labour, mining clayey soil, decongesting cities, combating digital violence, restoring coastal reefs or protecting earthworms.

Financial institutions oversee financial control, accounting and management system underlying economic development locally and globally. The raising of adequate funding from financial institutions to carry out a gamut of economic development activities that can sustainably transform society is not easy. Matching “value-for-money” principle with some non-economic enterprises on the ground has been a difficult issue.

With the commencement of the agenda 2030 this year, one of the fundamental areas where sustainability leadership is needed from public or private institutions is creating financial conditions that help to disseminate relevant information to make people know and become aware of the SDGs. By knowing the SDGs, people can lend a hand or participate in actions to let the dream of a sustainable society become a reality. Communicating from the context of ‘Leadership for Sustainability, one of the world’s most influential women leaders, Helen Clark, based at the UN Development Programme, at the beginning of this year eloquently wrote to emphasize a true need for leadership if SD and SDGs are to be achieved:

Our generation is the last that will have the chance to head off the worst effects of climate change. It is also the first generation that can eradicate extreme poverty and secure a more hopeful future for all. Putting the planet on the path to sustainable development is achievable – but it will require fearless leadership from us all.’

 With regards to industry, infrastructure, sustainable production and consumption as well as energy for all, the leadership role requires from the financial world cannot be standalone.  Constructing roads or building €898.76 billion energy and telecommunication infrastructure from Lagos to Dakar needs cooperation from financial, traditional, political and legal actors. The unique thing about the SDGs is that there is space for creating partnerships to collectively make sustainability decisions – a measured conviction that promoting SDGs in isolation will not work well for anyone or nation.

Creating sustainability awareness to speed collective implementation of the SDGs is the responsibility of all. SDG has room for everyone to learn, plan, take action and equally reap from the benefits.  SDGs operate on one of the cardinal principles of SD that is the result is not entirely gear towards present consumption rather to the NEXT generation. Taking goal #8 and #9, for instance, it is clear that they are embedded in them the potential to boost green growth and consequently quadruple the Gross Domestic Product of a developing country.  Also, realising the SDGs will go with implementing social enterprises in the same way as mainstream economic enterprises. For social enterprises, some of which may be charitable in implementation, investing in them must not be resisted by financial leaders because they are for sustainability futures. Public goods! In a write up on ‘Two keys to sustainable social enterprises’, which was published in Harvard Business Review last year, Roger L. Martin, then based at the University of Toronto, and Sally R. Osberg, the CEO of Skoll Foundation, noted that:

 ‘government officials, social activists, and business entrepreneurs associated with the great transformations that have improved our world may not have imagined how much their innovations would accomplish; many did not live to see it happen. Martin Luther King Jr. is a poignant example.’

Mother Teresa’s sterling legacy of development service, explicitly resemblance of sustainability leadership, comes to mind – efficiently managing funds to provide food, clothes, health, and build shelter for vulnerable children, lepers, people with AIDS, and the dying. How will she lead, finance and practicalize SDGs if alive today? One of the things I learned from her services was that the task of leading could not be everyone’s job. A proportion of people is indeed the poorest, starved, mentally incapacitated and physically disabled such that to avoid flourishing of corruption, discrimination and oppression only persons who genuinely love them can profitably manage their funds and fairly lead a course for their sustainable well-beings. Think about children and aged! This is why leading for sustainability remains a financial currency in realising the SDGs because it goes with the finest mix of skills, tools and qualities in sustainable management of knowledge, funds and peoples, which ordinary leadership neglects. The good news is that a few world-class universities, including the University of Cambridge’s programme on Sustainability Leadership are innovatively pioneering the training and grooming  of sustainability leaders.

In summary, sustainability leadership does “not leave people behind” financially or socio-environmentally. The currency as I refer to in this text does not only mean fiscal money but comprises non-financial ingredients such as effective decision-making, negotiating, planning and practising financial regulations among others that leaders adopt to advance inclusiveness  and human well-beings. Time must be financially negotiated. It entails also financial innovations, greening “financial bonds” and creativity in budgetary allocations to development projects through which businesses are done differently and greenly, thus, departing from “business-as-usual”.

Financial decisions regarding how much money is mobilized, utilized and efficiently managed to achieve SDG targets will depend on sustainability leaders’ acumen and prowess. Indeed, the world needs SDGs and everyone is needed to achieve measurable and realistic results beyond agenda 2030.

 

[1] The SDGs icons used in this text is adapted with permission from http://www.globalgoals.org

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