All companies—particularly those with market and supply chain exposure in emerging economies—continually face health, environmental, and human rights challenges that impact their business. Such challenges affect market access, supply chain sustainability, and base-of-the-pyramid strategies. With more than a billion people currently living on less than US$1 per day, and even more lacking access to safe water, proper nutrition, and basic health care, these challenges show few signs of abating.

Extreme poverty heightens people’s vulnerability to disease and increases the risk of natural disasters, violent conflict, and state failure. It also impacts the private sector, which can sustain operations only if employees and communities are healthy and well-educated, and local industry is innovative, economically viable, and environmentally responsible.

In 2000, the United Nations introduced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a 15-year road map to guide and measure poverty alleviation around the world. The MDGs aim to:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  2. Achieve universal primary education.
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
  4. Reduce child mortality.
  5. Improve maternal health.
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
  8. Develop a global partnership for development.

According to Jane Nelson and Dave Prescott, who wrote the report "Business and the Millennium Development Goals: A Framework for Action," for leading companies, helping achieve the MDGs is “not only a matter of corporate social responsibility... but also a matter of corporate social opportunity, embedded in innovation, value creation, and competitiveness.”

Indeed, businesses have the chance to contribute to a stronger and more sustainable global economy—and profit from the success of responsible operations—by taking action to reduce poverty and strengthen communities where they operate and from which they source.

What Your Company Can Do

  1. Link your sustainability agenda to the achievement of the MDGs. By ensuring that your company’s core business practices support access to capital, health, and education—as well as local job creation and gender equality—you can help create positive impacts in emerging economies that deliver business benefits.

    For example, Coca-Cola has established a network of more than 2,500 locally owned and operated Manual Distribution Centers in East Africa launched on behalf of the company to distribute Coke products. In addition to reducing the challenge of marketing and distribution for Coca-Cola, this effort has fostered local entrepreneurship and contributed to poverty reduction through the generation of more than 12,000 jobs and more than US$500 million in annual revenues.

    Linking corporate responsibility to the MDGs provides a compelling communications platform for companies to showcase their MDG partnership innovation. Since progress toward the MDGs are measured annually against a robust monitoring and evaluation system, companies can use these indicators to demonstrate impact both in public reporting and internal project oversight.

  2. Build public-private partnerships along your supply chain. Governments, multilateral agencies, and private foundations such as the U.S. Department of State, the European Commission, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the International Labour Organization are eager to work with the private sector to meet the MDGs. Collaborating with them can help companies tap funding, expertise, and field operations that will enhance project impact while reducing costs.

    But partnerships alone are not enough. In 2008, BSR worked with USAID to evaluate public-private partnerships and uncovered the following keys to success:

    • A project backed by a strong business case delivers better development and business impacts than passive philanthropic contributions.
    • Projects involving a single company often have better focus and higher implementation efficiency than those with multiple company participation.
    • Equal partner contributions to project design and active collaboration of field staff make partnerships more robust and deliver more strategic and sustainable impact.
  3. Participate in cross-sector global development dialogues to enhance knowledge and action. By joining international dialogues facilitated by organizations as diverse as the Skoll Foundation, the United Nations, and Ashoka, companies can help bring development-friendly trade policies to their home countries, and can play an influential advocacy and support role with governments and NGOs in their sourcing and investment locations.

Although the deadline for meeting the MDGs is less than six years away, a recent UN report reveals that efforts have slackened and even reversed due to the global economic crisis. Through the steps outlined above, companies can help get back on track with achieving these important goals.