What WEF has to say about sustainable development

Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling, professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden attempted to demystify some of the Millennium Development Goals for the experts gathered at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland today.

Using a series of multiple-choice questions about extreme poverty, vaccinations and birthrates, Rosling showed WEF-goers that they had less knowledge about the state of the world than when chimps answered the questions at random.

“When you answer worse than random, it means the problem is not lack of knowledge, [it’s] that you carry preconceived ideas,” said Rosling.

In other words, our core knowledge about the way the world works is wrong, he added.

Using the Millennium Development Goal to reduce child mortality as an example, Rosling showed that incredible progress has been made over the last 40 years. Since 1964, Bangladesh has surpassed Italy in lowering its child mortality rate and China has also made massive strides in this area.

While it takes 10 to 20 years to convert economic resources into social welfare impacts, most countries – including emerging economies – have already succeeded in doing this. This objective view of the data suggests that the line between developed and developing countries is meaningless, said Rosling.

Without this data, the world and the media are missing global trends that indicate tremendous improvements in the lives of women and children, said Rosling.

“The main reason for optimism is evidence from the past,” he said. “We can make the world much better, the long-term trend is going in the right direction, and we can solve [future] disasters.”


What role should the private sector play?

For Helen Elizabeth Clarke, the administrator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the key to understanding the Millennium Development Goals is that they are grounded in the principles of sustainable development. UNEP is mandated to work with countries to achieve sustainable development, which requires the organization to pursue economic and social progress for people within the bounds of nature, she explained to WEF attendees.

So what role does business have in helping to achieve these social goals? “Business is part of society, so you can’t achieve sustainable development without business playing its part,” she said. Recent corporate commitments towards zero deforestation in the supply chain are among the most promising developments that Clarke has seen over the past few years.

Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke, another member of Clarke’s panel, spoke about the need for business to go back to basics. Referencing his university economics courses, Bulcke pointed out that the fundamental role of economic activity in society is to generate value for all.

“You need to make long-term commitments in the societies that you operate in,” he said. “We don’t want to be a hit-and-run presence in certain countries.”

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