Open for business: The UN embraces corporate partnerships

In the early 2000s, relations between the United Nations and business were limited and largely characterised by mistrust. This has changed fundamentally, and most UN agencies today engage with business towards the objectives of the UN.

The relationship between the United Nations and the private sector has gone
through a paradigm shift since the turn of millennium. When the Global Compact
was launched, few agencies had any interaction with private companies
and the UN and business viewed each other with scepticism. The UN largely
considered the private sector profit-seeking at the expense of societal goals,
while business viewed the UN as bureaucratic and ineffective.


THE SYSTEM OPENS UP
The first Guidelines on UN-Business Cooperation established in 2000 were a
milestone in the efforts to modernise the organisation, and encouraged all UN
entities to develop strategies to partner with the corporate sector. Government
perceptions have also radically changed. Since 2001, the biannual General Assembly resolutions ‘Towards Global Partnerships’ have recognised the importance of business involvement as a prerequisite to achieving the goals of the UN; from economic development, poverty reduction, and sustainable job creation to
peace and stability.


TOWARDS STRATEGIG AND TRANSFORMATIVE PARTNERSHIPS
Over the last 15 years, many UN agencies have realised that there is more to
working with business than ad hoc engagement on donations or sponsorship
deals, and more sophisticated approaches to partnering have emerged. With
higher levels of awareness, competence and more dedicated resources, many
UN agencies have established processes for seeking and screening potential
partners.

While the level and effectiveness of partnerships still varies greatly across the
UN, many agencies have become more sophisticated in their approach. Fundraising
remains an important objective, and a growing number of partnerships
are also mobilising core business competencies and fostering private sector
development.

A recent survey on how the UN partners with business shows that 47 per
cent of UN agencies now hire staff with private sector experience, signalling
that the gap between the UN and corporate culture is closing.


ALIGNMENT WITHIN
Over time, a culture of sharing between UN agencies has emerged. Regular
meetings enable best practices on due diligence, internal policies, experiences
and learning. All significant UN summits now include business representation.
The Global Compact helps companies to find strategic partners, working
with over 20 UN entities. This is now a key entry point for matching companies
with United Nations entities.

Whereas some organisations have sophisticated programs in place, more recently-
established agencies can lack the same capabilities to deal with business.
The ways in which different UN agencies interact with the corporate sector still
vary significantly.

“From a broad global governance perspective, the most important development is that there isn’t a single UN meeting to my knowledge that doesn’t have business representation. The Global Compact has brought business to the table and included its voice in UN deliberations.”
JANE NELSON, DIRECTOR OF THE CSR INITIATIVE, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

THE ROLE OF GLOBAL COMPACT:
A NEW STAGE OF COLLABORATION

As the UN is opening up for collaboration with business, what has been the role of
the Global Compact in catalysing this change?


Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s speech at the World Economic
Forum in 1999 paved the way for institutional change in the UN, and when the
Global Compact was launched a year later, the door for UN-private sector engagement was opened. Since then, the Global Compact has been instrumental
in nurturing understanding, trust and collaboration between the Organisation
and business.


ACCEPTING THE VALUE OF VOLUNTARY

Today, the UN has largely accepted that business engagement can complement
rather than pre-empt regulation, and that business competencies and resources
can be harnessed to meet the objectives of the Organisation. Through convening
numerous platforms for engagement, the Global Compact has enabled this
shift in perception, and it is also increasingly working as an entry point for UN
agencies and business seeking collaboration.


BRINING BUSINESS TO THE TABLE

Over the years, the Global Compact has strengthened the voice of business at
international negotiations previously only attended by governments. One of the
most significant institutional innovations of the Secretary-General was to bring
CEOs to the UN for the “UN Private Sector Forum”. Organised by the Global
Compact in collaboration with other UN partners, it was one of the first opportunities CEOs had to engage directly with governments on priority issues.


BUILDING CAPACITY AND COMPETENCE

Together with UN partners, the Global Compact has played an important role
in cultivating the architecture required for the UN to more effectively partner
with business, whilst at the same time, importantly, safeguarding the UN brand.
Almost 400 business participants have reported that they have partnerships
with the UN. Through the annual UN System Private Sector Focal Point meetings,
a learning platform for interaction between UN staff and business, and
the monthly UN-business focal point newsletter, the Global Compact has been
central to bringing about institutional change.

Working particularly through its Local Networks, the Global Compact’s wide
range of practical resources and events have provided the basis for improving
partnership effectiveness and expanded collaboration across sectors and geographies. They have also responded to government requests for more training and institutional capacity-building to drive partnership effectiveness.


SHAPING DUE DILIGENCE

A significant change has been the system-wide creation of internal due diligence
processes based upon the ten principles and other tools developed by the Global
Compact. However, many UN entities are still partnering with companies without
conducting a proper ESG assessment, and there seems to be a significant
opportunity for the UN to enforce stricter measures to ensure that prospective
partners are aligned with UN values. This includes introducing participation in
the Global Compact as a requirement for partnerships.