Q&A with Georg Kell, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact

Today, more than 57 million primary school age children around the world did not have the opportunity to go to school.  And some children – whether in school or not  are not learning.  At least 250 million primary school age children are not learning basic skills.  Business has tremendous potential to transform global education.  However, the private sector’s involvement in global education efforts has been surprisingly small, short-term, and uncoordinated.
The Global Business Coalition for Education–a business-led initiative committed to global education—sat down with Georg Kell, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, to discuss how business can support global education goals.  The UN Global Compact, comprised of 7,500 global participants, is a strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles.

Q. Why should companies bother at all with education – a public good issue?

A. The role of business has fundamentally changed in the past two decades. Issues like education are increasingly critical for sustainability and long-term financial success. But why?
While Government remains local, business has gone global, reaching beyond traditional boundaries to address critical issues such children’s rights, decent jobs and education. Business is a market builder, and understands that it can only succeed if markets succeed. As education is essential for stable, growing economies, companies in emerging markets are investing for the long-term and their affinity for aligning their strategies and operations with public goods has grown proportionally.
For the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, we will unveil to the world a new Business Engagement Architecture in support of public goods where education is a priority.

Q. The Global Corporate Sustainability Report 2013 revealed that education is a top priority for business. How has the Global Compact responded to this finding?

A. Our Annual Implementation Survey, which provided the basis for this report, involved more than 1,700 companies from over 100 countries. The findings are significant: education is an urgent area where business feels it can make the greatest impact. We responded immediately by formulating a The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education that will guide business to help address education challenges. In particular, we were encouraged to act by Hon. Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education.

Q. The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education will be launched at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit.  How did the Framework for Business Engagement in Education come together?

A. It is amazing that not much guidance exists for business to advance the global education agenda. We wanted to start with illustrative good practices. This is important because over the years we’ve learned that companies are peer oriented – they watch what their competition is doing and whose brands are most admired. Examples are imitated, adopted and adapted.
With this in mind, we developed the framework to assist companies in realizing benefits while at the same time fostering innovation in education, addressing operational risks, enhancing reputation, boosting employee morale, and developing the capacity of the next generation of employees.

Q. How did Global Compact participants contribute to the framework?

A. As the framework is designed to be relevant and practical for companies, we consulted with Global Compact participants to offer the business perspective. We wanted to understand what has already been done, what has been done well, and how we can improve existing efforts to drive long-term impacts in education.

Q. How were UN agencies involved?

A. The UN Global Compact collaborated with UN agencies responsible for education and children: UNESCO and UNICEF. We tried to position the framework as a bridge between the public policy mandate of UN entities and the private sector contributions that such a framework can unleash.
The framework is built on the Global Compact’s prior experience, notably the Women’s Empowerment Principles and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

Q. What does the framework seek to accomplish?

A. The framework identifies what business can do and by implication, what not to do, when it comes to education. It starts by communicating the relevance of education for our collective future – a message that is relevant not only in OECD countries but also in developing countries. Education is important for gender issues and girls’ education, as well as for the global north that struggles with the challenges of inequality.  Education can be the greatest equalizer of all.
The framework harnesses the capabilities of business as a knowledge provider. We hope that companies will be inspired on a massive scale to envision how their core business can support global education.
In addition, this framework can act as a feeder to bring businesses to platforms where they can learn from each other, notably the Global Business Coalition on Education. The organization is set up to drive business engagement in global education and deepen existing efforts.

Q. How can companies implement the framework’s recommendations, including the need to engage responsibly in global education?

A. For all social issues – or let’s say non-traditional financial issues – success demands a leadership commitment. In other words, we expect CEOs, Boards of Directors and Senior Managers to understand the significance and benefits of high-quality education for a company’s sustainability.
Companies should welcome partnerships with civil society and others. I hope the Global Business Coalition for Education will play a major role in driving this agenda forward.

The new Framework for Business Engagement in Education, to be unveiled at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit 2013: Architects of a Better World on September 20 in partnership with UNESCO, UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, will support the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative.
The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education) is an action-oriented organization that brings together corporate leaders committed to delivering quality education for all of the world’s children.  On September 19, GBC-Education will host a special event on business engagement in education as part of the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit.