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Why business needs to address the social impacts of COVID-19: an interview with Lise Kingo, UN Global Compact chief

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As businesses struggle to cope with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, they need to remain aware of their responsibilities as partners in efforts to build a sustainable future, says the outgoing head of the UN Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Lise Kingo has run the Global Compact for the last five years. In an interview with UN News, Ms. Kingo described the changes that she has seen during her time in charge, and how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the private sector’s commitment to making the UN’s vision of a future that protects people and the planet, a reality.

“When the pandemic hit, the Global Compact was among the first initiatives to issue a call to action to all businesses. We said that it would have huge economic and social impacts, and that they needed to double down on their responsibilities, regarding our 10 Business Principles – based around human rights, labour, anti-corruption and the environment – and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN’s blueprint for change.

We asked them to do two things: make a contribution to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Foundation, to help it get the funding it needs to do its work, and protect its employees, in terms of human rights, in terms of safety, and in terms of keeping their jobs: one of the biggest challenges from the pandemic is going to be that many more people will suddenly find themselves without a job, particularly the more vulnerable workers in the informal sector.

The UN Global Compact left companies in no doubt that the way forward is not to just zoom in on their financial bottom line, but to become even more responsible, and anchor the Principles and the Sustainability Goals in their business.”

Are you confident that this crisis will lead to a stronger partnership between government, business, civil society, and employees?

“I think that I can say with relative confidence that the large companies that are part of the Global Compact, and are really setting the agenda for business, understand and appreciate that multilateralism, and partnerships between the UN, governments and business, are the way forward.

Of course, there are also companies struggling to just stay afloat, and they are having a really hard time. But I think that, once they understand the Principles and the Goals, and what this new normal means for their business, they will come back to this eventually.

It's devastating that we have basically moved 20 years backwards, when it comes to poverty reduction. And much of this is happening because people in the global supply chain are losing their jobs. It's dawning on many companies that we need to focus on not only an environmental agenda, with the whole climate issue, but that there's also a big social agenda that they need to address: we don't want to just to go back to the way things were before.”

What have you learned during your five years as head of the Global Compact?

“I’ve been involved in this area for some 30 years, and it has always been difficult to make sustainable business a core part of the agenda: it always tended to be a bit side-lined. However, that has changed: today close to 70 per cent of CEOs are now driving sustainability.

When I joined the UN Global Compact in 2015, it was an exciting time, because this was the year that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted at the UN. Suddenly we had this amazing agenda for the world with, 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and one of my challenges was to figure out, along with the UN Global Compact community, how to turn this into a business agenda.

Also, during the time I’ve been working for the UN, companies have become strong advocates for multilateralism: multinationals don’t appreciate nationalism for business reasons, but also for human and social reasons: they need the whole world to be interconnected as one big market.

These goals have really ignited, not only the business sector, but also the financial sector. And they have been a way for business to define a “new normal”, that they have to adapt to, if they want to be successful going forward.

Black Rock, for example, the biggest financial institution in the world has joined the Global Compact, which sends a powerful signal, and we are now seeing many financial institutions screening companies they want to include in their responsibility portfolios, based on the 10 Global Compact Business Principles.

That is why the Global Compact has to become the authority for the business and financial sector, for defining how companies are becoming more sustainable, and to show that, whilst they all face dilemmas and challenges, they are striving continually to improve”.