Health » Overview

Interviews and coverage from our Health programs


Magdalena Seol - Business and Investment Can Drive a More Sustainable Asia

International expert in sustainable development and public sector innovation identifies critical role for private sector

Seol says accelerating sustainable economic growth requires adequate private sector finance

Magdalena Seol | 20.12.2017

Seol was a participant at The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia. All participants were invited to share their own vision for "the Asia we want."

Building a sustainable economy is a critical concern not just for policymakers but also for businesses. Our generation lives in a historic time: the next decade will be an inflection point for the next hundred years. If we are to build a sustainable and inclusive society, it is necessary to invite and unleash the private sector resources, creativity, and drive into our grand mission. 90 percent of the jobs created during the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals were created by the private sector, signaling an essential role that businesses will need to play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and lifting the remaining 700 million people around the world out of extreme poverty. Accelerating sustainable economic growth requires adequate private sector finance - especially in critical public infrastructure - to preserve scarce public dollars and reach the scale as needed. Building human capital needs not only finance but innovation and management efficiency that can be drawn from the private sector. Fostering resilience to global and regional shocks also requires a robust participation of the private sector.

Now, let’s look into Asia. Below is a map created by Brilliant Maps. You will see a circled area in it.

Circle centered on 106.6° East, 26.6° North, projected using GMT, created by BCMM - Brilliant Maps

More people live inside this circle than outside of it, with many of the world’s most populous countries located in the circle – China (first), India (second), Indonesia (fourth), Pakistan (sixth), and Bangladesh (seventh). According to the UN DESA, two-thirds of the projected population growth is happening in the high-food deficit regions of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, presenting the challenges of not only “overpopulation” but also “disparity.” The economic transformation the Asian region showed in recent decades is indeed an unprecedented one. However, persistent inequality and environmental degradation can be a threat to the “Asian Century.” Feeding and conserving Asia has now become an urgent problem.

In the meantime, business cases for achieving the SDGs are expanding worldwide, and Asia may be particularly well placed to reap the collective benefits of such cases for a few reasons. Firstly, there are already sizable businesses that have value chains that involve millions of enterprises in the region. Secondly, many governments in Asia are able to shape market activity and set nation-wide goals. Thirdly, culturally, Asian societies tend to value environmental protection, social justice or education, which strongly resonate with the Global Goals. A quantitative analysis conducted by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission and others estimates that companies pursuing strategies aligned with the SDGs in the region with sustainable business models are likely to create economic opportunities worth US$5 trillion in a few key market areas – food & agriculture, energy, cities, and health – and generate 230 million new jobs in Asia by 2030. The total estimated value, US$5 trillion, is even introduced as a conservative number. Additional value can be generated from other sectors such as ICT, education, and consumer goods, which are estimated to add US$12 trillion. Pricing in environmental costs can further increase this size. And if progress is made in gender equality in the region, where women traditionally have not engaged in the economy, the analysis expects it to add another 30 percent growth in the economy of those Asian countries. The good news is that across the region, businesses are already pioneering innovative business models and applying new technologies to unlock sustainable opportunities that are in line with the SDGs.

The private sector – businesses and investments – will have critical roles in our march toward achieving social and environmental sustainability. First and foremost, businesses can address the manner in which they conduct their business activities – compliance, risk management and ‘do no harm’ – across their value chains. Developing new, innovative and inclusive products, services, technologies, and ways of doing business in the market that can contribute to improving people’s lives and environmental performance is also a unique part that businesses can contribute. Scaling the new business models and shifting the pioneers to common practice will require various layers of collaboration within and outside the corporate sector such as project-level financing and implementation partners, industry-level alliances, and multi-stakeholder platforms and networks. To crowd in private capital and investment, we will need to continue developing new and creative financial products. For instance, this could include bonds recently issued by the World Bank that directly link returns to the businesses’ performance in advancing the development priorities set out in the SDGs; drawing in non-traditional sources of finance such as sovereign wealth funds and pension funds with trillions of dollars in liquidity; or “greening” the financial sector with more cases of green bonds at municipal, national, and regional levels.

All of these measures may not be enough to fully tackle the multiplying pressures and mutually reinforcing challenges imposed on the region’s sustainability. This will be an on-going evolutionary process of finding, testing, and establishing innovative models and solutions. While the problems are daunting, I am optimistic that we will be able to unlock the socioeconomic potential of the private sector in collaboration with governments, multilateral institutions, nonprofits, and ultimately, with citizens.

Magdalena Seol is an international expert in sustainable development and public sector innovation. She founded Global Development Advisors, a strategy advisory consultancy that solely focuses on global development and public impact problems

Session 591 - The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia- is the first session of a new multi-year series held in partnership with the Japan Foundation. For more information on the Session, please click here. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session on social media, follow #SGSasia.


Magdalena Seol