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Will the new development agenda strike the right public-private balance?

Getting the right balance between public and private sector roles and responsibilities in the Financing for Development (FfD 3) and Post-2015 process will be fundamental to prospects for sustainable, inclusive development. Yet early evidence suggests this balance is already skewed in favour of private interests.

At the FfD3 hearings with businesses in mid-April, the theme, albeit unstated, seemed to be more business as usual. Sessions covered how to increase public-private partnerships and how to cultivate more small and medium enterprises. But all of this could happen under the current growth model, be completely unsustainable and deepen already serious marginalization.

One speaker stressed that risks are not as great in many developing countries as many investors think, and more money can be made there than in rich countries. A representative from the fertilizer industry made multiple interventions, without anyone pointing out the huge environmental and social costs from these products.

With the zero draft of the FfD3 outcome on the table, a speaker described it as having a lot of language positive for business. It refers to engage businesses as “partners in the development process.” But what track record do businesses have in being part of the solution where that is not mandated? Especially on the systemic, broad scale required for sustainable development?

The hearings devoted much talk to how public actors need to be better prepared to work with the private sector. Governments, for instance, need to understand how to develop proposals attractive to investors. Does all this imply that the incentive structure only operates in one direction? Is there an assumption that the public sector must do more to operate on business terms, even those producing highly inequitable, unsustainable development?

Sustainable development is a concept that recognizes relationships, between people and planet; among economic, social and environment concerns; across different countries with their full spectrum of different capacities and responsibilities. It is, in a sense, a kind of social contract, grounded in indivisible human rights, that delivers for everyone alive today, with full consideration for generations to come.

Yet many businesses, encouraged by years of deregulation, think of themselves as existing outside this social contract. Or as able to select the parts useful to them.

Such a social contract is bound to collapse. Many businesses might agree that a contract is binding, not optional. It must be upheld and enforced, with no picking and choosing—and no exceptions.

Barbara Adams and Gretchen Luchsinger are staff at Global Policy Forum. This blog is based on a Global Policy Watch brief, whose full version can be downloaded here (and in Spanish here).

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