Leave no one behind, Trusteeship and the SDGs

Growth in nature is always balanced and multi-faceted; while ecosystems, grow, others decline. At the same time, everything is reused and transformed into new species and environments. This biological concept of development is an unfolding of species and organisms till they reach their potential; very different from our modern definition of growth that prioritises profit over everything else. A large part of the 20th century management philosophy around capitalism is based on what Milton Friedman propagated – the business of business is business i.e. profit maximization at the cost of everything else.

At one level, this is counter to everything we are taught at school, do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. The belief is that if everyone looks after himself then some ‘invisible hand’ will ensure that everyone will be better off. This hasn’t really happened anywhere in the world as inequality has reached new highs. Non-financial criteria, such as environment and biodiversity, are considered ‘externalities’ and not included in their assessments – and that is exactly what the problem is today. The things we have forgotten to measure, or considered as externalities are fighting back. While wealth metrics have increased over the years, the damage to other things has been immense.

We are now in the midst of climate change with sky rocketing levels of carbon in the air. We are also in the midst of the largest species extinction with historic levels of loss in flora and fauna. Growth has not been equal; the richest 2000 own more than 4.6 billion others. Companies are flush with funds, but real incomes of people have declined. The consequences of imbalance are mostly seen in the long term and if allowed to go unchecked, disruption caused by a business at one level has lead to huge imbalances in society. So, while capitalism has flourished people and the environment have been left behind.

The discussion around the new emerging shift have repeatedly highlighted the need for balance. Hence, when we speak about ‘development’, we need to specify which kind of development we have in mind. If ‘development’ is used in the current narrow economic sense, it will further perpetuate the imbalances. If, however, the process of development is understood as more than a purely economic process and includes social, ecological, and spiritual dimensions, and associated with qualitative economic growth, then such a multidimensional systemic process can indeed be sustainable.

During the 2014 UN Sustainable Development Summit, members from 193 countries of the United Nations collaboratively committed to adopting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The countries also committed themselves to meet the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The seventeen SDGs and 169 interlinked targets within these addressed a variety of issues—from ending poverty to stemming climate change and provide a pathway to a sustainable and more prosperous world.

Since the Sustainable Development Goals have to be implemented by 2030, it requires an immense effort not only from governments but also businesses. The Indian Government is already using SDGs as a roadmap for formulating national policies and regulations. It is therefore incumbent upon corporations to complement these actions. However, growth and GDP measures still don’t account for many of the things that we now value – health, wellbeing, environment, education and so on.

While there are metrics for each SDG, we need to integrate these together into the GDP measures so that they actually reflect the challenges that we face and the urgency to overcome them at scale. Considering that many business models of the twenty-first century, largely based around technology, are about disruption or creating an imbalance and profiting from it, we need a new business philosophy that reflects how value and wealth need to be created.. With business metrics only covering profit and capital chasing unsustainable sources of value creation, changes to national level measures will be unsustainable without creating new metrics for business and finance.

Gandhi’s vision of a world without poverty, inequality and injustice is akin to the core belief of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) that envision a world where no one is left behind. Gandhi also realized that business needs to be involved in making this a reality and outlined the socio-economic philosophy of Trusteeship. Trusteeship talked about holding wealth for common good and creating a just and equitable society. The Gandhian Model of Trusteeship is one such approach that, while being uniquely Indian, provides a means of transforming the present unequal order of society into an egalitarian one. It specifies that everything we do must be economically viable as well as ethical—at the same time making sure we build sustainable livelihoods for all.

This model was debated in the 1940s and ’50s and had no real takers for most of the twentieth century. However, the challenges thrown up by the twenty-first century such as economic collapse, the absence of values and challenges of sustainable growth necessitate another look at this framework. Trusteeship can be the much needed modern day philosophical core that business and the world desperately needs. A uniquely Indian, philosophical construct that looks at redefining how we measure success.

First Posted on ET Insights