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Is the UN Global Compact leadership summit an effective forum for change?

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[Originally published on The Guardian.]

Despite some concerns, participation in this high-profile affair is arguably more important than ever .

Every three years, the UN Global Compact holds its Leaders Summit. And every three years I reflect on the value of participation. A part of me is excited by the prospect of participation; another part has reservations.

As the world’s largest responsible business initiative a UN Global Compact Summit is always a fascinating event. The high profile of many of the participants makes it seem something like a CSR Academy Awards. While no gold figurines are handed out, the two-day programme is packed with enough special events to be of interest to all of the 1,000 registered participants.

With a who’s who of leaders in the sustainable development space, it is an unrivalled platform to be seen and network – convening global leaders across the whole corporate sustainability agenda.

Glitz (or what passes for it in the sustainable development world) aside, the substantive agenda makes it more akin to a think-tank such as Chatham House or a Davos forum. The summit is a uniquely serious affair, with a long history of posing the most pressing human rights, environmental and ethical issues. While it is not, unlike the UN General Assembly, a decision-making forum, this is its strength.

The Leaders Summit (and indeed the Global Compact in general) is a decision-finding forum: one where participants are encouraged to explore – without the formality of traditional UN discussions – how governments, the private sector and the non-profit sectors can work together more effectively in responding to the ever more pressing challenges of sustainable development.

No decisions are made, but everyone goes away with a better understanding of the issues and a clearer sense of what they want to do, with whom, and how.

This year will be no different. Indeed, it might be argued that participation this year is even more important than ever. As the intergovernmental commitments made in the UN Millennium Development Goals (2000-15) come to an end, the process of crafting the agenda beyond 2015 has begun in earnest.

How well the post-2015 agenda and its implementation plan are defined will affect every one of us, and every company. This is not a process that should be left to governments alone.

Regrettably, elections nowadays rarely address sustainability issues, so the scope is limited at nation or regional level to help craft the policies and practices that will enable humankind to navigate through the stormy waters that this century inevitably holds in store.

With its hybrid part governmental/part stakeholder structure, the Leaders Summit offers both a platform and a model for deepening the dialogue between all the key actors on how to bring about transformative change in how we do business.

Which brings me to my reservations about such events. As with all voluntary corporate responsibility initiatives, the Global Compact is open to charges that it slows progress towards mandatory measures by giving the impression that laws on corporate accountability and reporting are not needed. It is insufficiently transparent about participant performance and impacts in relation to its core principles and fails to connect directly enough with private sector drivers to effect real change.

Add to this the fact that government finance, economic and trade ministers are usually conspicuous by their absence and you wonder what’s the point. The real game is played at the G8 or the G20.

These remain genuine concerns and deserve serious follow-up. In my view, however, the place to make these points and to drive action, is precisely at such meetings and not just outside. For all its weaknesses and challenges, the UN Global Compact has changed the discourse on corporate responsibility forever and for the better.

We should celebrate the fact that since its creation there is now a global forum where governments, business, worker representatives and NGOs can get together to share experiences and ideas. We should cherish its 10 global principles defining what constitutes responsible corporate behaviour, and everywhere actively promote these and the wider international commitments they were built on.

We should take all possible steps to encourage governments to live up to their commitments and the private sector to be accountable and live up to its potential for doing good. The Leaders Summit seems like the right place to renew this resolve and redouble our efforts.

Paul Hohnen is Senior International Associate with ACCSR and Associate Fellow of Chatham House. Paul has been a diplomat, director of Greenpeace International and a director of the Global Reporting Initiative.

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