The private sector and ‘the future we want’

by Cordelia Lonsdale

Just in case you’re not up to speed on one of the most important yet little-discussed UN processes relating to the post-2015 development agenda, here’s a potted history.

One of the outcomes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), was the establishment by the UN General Assembly of the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing (ICESDF). The mandate of the ICESDF is “preparing a report proposing options on an effective sustainable development financing strategy to facilitate the mobilization of resources and their effective use in achieving sustainable development objectives” (Translation: how are we going to get all the money we need together to pay for the Rio + vision- and do it effectively?).

The Committee has been meeting and seeking inputs since August 2013; and are now outreaching to regional stakeholders as they pull together their final report. In the immediate term, the ICESDF report will be a critical input to the forthcoming intergovernmental negotiations on post-2015. It will also likely contribute to the UN’s ongoing  financing for development negotiations. To make the obvious understatement: this report can be considered a big deal. So what’s going to be in it?

The tough questions on public-private partnerships for development

As we’ve engaged with this process at DI, what we’ve picked up on is just how much the discussions have yet to iron out about the role public-private partnerships will play in a post-2015 world- how they will be managed, governed and the impacts of these investments measured. At a recent ICESDF outreach event in Helsinki, it was clear that the Committee is making a real effort to grapple with the big questions- but equally clear that there’s quite a long way to go before we have concrete solutions on the table. (Even, in fact, before we have the right people at the table.)

This needs to change. One of the problems is how little we really know about what’s currently being invested by private actors in development. Our Investments to End Poverty report, and other recent work on public-private development partnerships, have found that we have very limited data on private flows into developing countries on which global decision-makers could really base a post-2015 financing plan- despite the fact that private flows are far bigger than the official development finance coming from governments. We need not just better data on how much went where and when, but more importantly, how did each investment impact on those in poverty? If post-2015 development goals are to be agreed, planned, implemented and impacts measured at the global level, we need data from private sector actors on their development spending.

Transparency and accountability: the only way to focus investments on ending poverty  

The co-chair’s report from the Helsinki session emphasises this, noting that we need more than just good intentions from public-private partnerships- we need to agree common goals for these investments. Many speakers at the meeting emphasised that for public-private partnerships to meet development goals and be managed and monitored effectively, greater transparency is essential. Greater transparency can help in finding where there is alignment between private sector incentives and sustainable development principles, where there is inherent conflict and looking at how this can be managed. Is this money providing services that help poor people? Do developing country partners have full oversight of this funding, where it’s going and what it’s being spent on, and are the impacts helping us meet common global development goals?

Decision-makers must commit within the post-2015 framework, to investing in measurement mechanisms which allow us to answer those questions, and continue to convene discussions which will allow all actors- governments, private sector actors, NGOs and other non-state actors- to agree on and commit to common development goals, like the eradication of extreme poverty.  The only other option is ignoring the huge potential for private actors to play a positive role in global development- not really an option at all.

The Committee so far has done a commendable job of bringing private sector representatives to the table to thrash out ideas- but now the hard part is trying to make these ideas a reality. Let’s hope the report sets the bar high for what can be achieved; and prompts more private sector actors to play a lead role in problem-solving discussions.