unctad.org | Scale up businesses that positively impact society, experts say
Scale up businesses that positively impact society, experts say
19 June 2019
Goal 8
The inclusive business space is an unprecedented economic opportunity with 4.5 billion people in developing countries representing a market of US$5 trillion.


The world needs more businesses that do good while also doing well to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, experts at an UNCTAD meeting on investment and entrepreneurship said.

UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant opened the meeting, taking place 17 to 19 June at the organization’s headquarters at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, with a call for the scaling up of such businesses to chip away at poverty and drive inclusive growth.

Her message falls squarely in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations’ roadmap for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.

Inclusive businesses benefit low-income communities. “These businesses build bridges between companies and communities, create new markets, jobs and expand opportunities for all,” Ms. Durant said.

James Zhan and Isabelle Durant
James Zhan and Isabelle Durant

She said a UN General Assembly resolution adopted last year reconfirmed for the fourth time the critical role of entrepreneurs and businesses in the quest towards sustainable and inclusive development.

“Entrepreneurs face many challenges. They require the support of governments to grow and contribute to development,” Ms. Durant said.

She also drew attention to UNCTAD’s entrepreneurship policy framework, first designed in 2012, which could be adapted and expanded by governments to create more economic opportunities, especially through small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

SMEs the backbone of economic growth

SMEs have the potential to contribute powerfully to multiple SDG targets across sectors, given their diverse operations, said UNCTAD’s investment and enterprise director, James Zhan.

“This makes the SDG and SME development agenda complementary and mutually reinforcing,” Mr. Zhan said.

He noted that SMEs account for 90% of all newly created businesses in developing countries.

Entrepreneurship had a catalysing effect for job creation, income generation and igniting economic activities in poor areas, he added.

 “SMEs provide about two-thirds of all formal jobs globally,” Mr. Zhan said. They also provide disadvantaged groups such as migrants, young people and women with opportunities.

He said UNCTAD’s work to build the capacity of these disadvantaged groups through its Empretech programme had been spotlighted by the UN General Assembly as a model that could be replicated.

While the unemployment situation is dire, entrepreneurship offers hope.

Mr. Zhan said some 60 million young people were unemployed globally while 40 million more entered the workforce every year, according to various sources. 

"This means we have to look beyond conventional modes of employment to accommodate this vast number of young jobseekers in economic activities."

For example, he said, through entrepreneurship more women could participate in economic activities, as currently only 49% of working-age women do so, compared with 75% of men.

He added that more women needed to be supported to own businesses, as women are currently five times less likely than men to own businesses, making them more vulnerable and hurting the greater economy.

SDGs: Ramp up efforts to hasten progress

“If we follow current trajectories, we will not achieve the SDGs,” warned World Bank senior vice president Mahmoud Mohieldin.

He said available data on 13 of the 17 goals showed that countries were underperforming and urgently needed to ratchet up action to stay on track to achieving the SDGs by 2030.

“It’s better to call for action today rather than wait and try to accelerate towards the end,” Mr. Mohieldin said.

He said businesses could vastly contribute to the SDGs by integrating sustainability in all stages of their value chains.

However, it wouldn’t be enough for businesses to artificially engage in corporate social responsibility activities while at the same time causing harm through their operations.

According to Mr. Mohieldin, consumers were getting more sophisticated, aware of their rights and concerned about negative implications of unsustainable business practices.

Thankfully, more businesses were embracing sustainability by tapping into opportunities to contribute to positive social outcomes while making profits, said he added.

So, the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, has moved to help investors wanting to invest for impact by developing a set of guiding principles on the topic.

Inclusive business a triple win

An inclusive business is a triple win as it creates positive public, social and economic impacts, said Markus Dietrich, director of the Inclusive Business Action Network.

He said the inclusive business space is an unprecedented opportunity with 4.5 billion people in developing countries representing a market of US$5 trillion.

“Impact investing provides an avenue to use private sector contributions to achieve the SDGs,” Mr. Dietrich said.

However, the potential of impact investing remains untapped because some investors have difficulty finding the right companies to invest in.

“We have trillions available but they (investors) don't find the right investment opportunities,” Mr. Dietrich said. “Impact investors are not only looking for financial returns, but also social impact.”


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