Private Sector

Partnerships for the SDGs: Deputy Director-General Beth Bechdol shares why working with the private sector is needed to build the world we want

22/02/2021 - 

FAO Members endorsed a new Strategy for Private Sector Engagement 2021-2025 at the last session of the governing Council in December 2020. The Strategy reflects FAO’s new forward-looking vision for strengthening engagement with the private sector towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the key person in the core management team who led the consultations and negotiations on the new Strategy, FAO Deputy Director-General, Beth Bechdol speaks about why engaging with the private sector is so important for achieving the SDGs.

2020 ushered in the start of a Decade of Action - a call to speed up progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by their target date of 2030. From a partnerships perspective, what do we need in order to deliver on Agenda 2030?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can only be met if we all work together across different sectors. Strategic partnerships are key to scaling up innovative solutions and bringing about transformative change, and we need to encourage collaborations that complement each other’s strengths.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to highlight the importance of working in partnership and the need to pool our knowledge, innovation and resources in order to respond to the challenges we face as a global community. During the next decade, we will need to take an innovative, country-owned and country-led approach to partnerships that will guide our engagement with the key players in food and agriculture.

In order to deliver on our commitments by 2030, we will need to be more agile, proactive and strategic in developing partnerships with all actors who contribute to our food systems, including family farmers, civil society, indigenous peoples, academia, philanthropic organizations and in particular, the private sector.

Why is the private sector such an important partner for achieving the SDGs?

The private sector is an integral part of any economy and society, and nowhere is their impact more evident than in global agri-food systems. Food and agriculture are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. These two sectors are poised to help us meet some of the world’s biggest challenges, from providing a growing population with affordable, accessible and nutritious food, to coping with the impacts of climate change, to sustaining our natural resources and tackling emerging threats from pests and diseases.

The private sector is also a strategic development partner. They are at the forefront of many forms of innovation and play a unique role in trade, finance and investment. Closer engagement with the private sector means we would be able to pool our knowledge to identify and implement solutions which have the potential to make our food systems more resilient, sustainable and inclusive, thereby bringing us closer to achieving the SDGs.

Where do you see private sector partnerships having the greatest impact on FAO’s work?

The private sector can play a decisive role in helping to close key financing gaps that impede the achievement of the SDGs. Agricultural and rural non-farm development, in particular, will require greater levels of private sector investment. For FAO, this means a shift in emphasis from funding to financing. We will aim to catalyze and blend different sources of financing from a variety of investors and structure them in a way that can provide the resources needed to help with country-level needs and priorities.

Access to data and technology is another area where the private sector can make an important contribution to our work. Over the past year, we have seen just how critical access to data has been in helping Members safeguard food, agriculture and livelihoods from emerging threats, whether in the form of transboundary pests like Fall Armyworm or Desert Locust, or the economic consequences of the global pandemic. In this digital age, being able to access private sector data on production, trade, markets and other areas of the value chain is immeasurably valuable. Engaging with the private sector in this area will give us the opportunity to generate even more real-time knowledge, data, market intelligence and best practices.

Since arriving at FAO, you’ve led the intensive consultation and negotiation process to develop a new strategy for engagement with the private sector - why is a new strategy important to have now?

FAO has traditionally engaged with the private sector in a few key ways, through policy dialogues, advocacy and communication, capacity development, resource mobilization, technical cooperation and contributions to FAO’s knowledge and research capacity. These types of collaborations are still important. They allow us to integrate private sector knowledge and expertise across different areas of our work, and encourage industries to adopt international norms and standards, such as the international Code of Conduct for the sustainable use and management of fertilizers as a benchmark to set industry standards.

However, going forward, we want to broaden our engagement with the private sector in ways that we think will increase the impact of our work, by fostering innovation, encouraging data sharing and dissemination, increasing SDG-aligned investments in the food and agricultural sectors and scaling up collective multi-stakeholder efforts to provide innovative solutions that are country-owned and country-led.

The new strategy is the outcome of an inclusive consultation process, building on the needs expressed by FAO Members as well as on the recommendations and feedback received from private sector representatives and FAO personnel. Last year, we organized a series of extensive virtual consultations with participants from more than 75 private sector entities, where we discussed best practices and lessons learned, as well as challenges and ways to improve future engagements.

FAO’s new Strategy for Private Sector Engagement, which was endorsed by all 194 of our Members, lays the groundwork for engagements that can bring about transformative change and innovation, as well as measurable sustainable impact and benefits. These engagements may be implemented through different modalities - including but not limited to partnering - as we expand the way we engage with the private sector.

When we talk about the private sector, we tend to think of large, multi-national corporations. Is that who we’re trying to engage?

There’s a great diversity in the private sector landscape - large corporations and financial institutions certainly play a part, but so do start-ups and entrepreneurs, industry and trade associations, and philanthropic foundations. FAO’s partnerships must reflect this same diversity and also consider geographic (local, national and regional) and sectoral strategic value.

We are especially looking for greater engagement with local and national micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). In fact., one of our most recent partnership agreements was signed with Paradise Foods Ltd, a local private sector company in Papua New Guinea. The collaboration will allow smallholder cocoa producers to benefit from private sector expertise in improving the quality of their products and accessing more demanding and profitable markets, which will lead to better and more reliable incomes for the producers.

The new strategy also recognizes farmers - including small scale and family farmers - and farmers’ organizations as important constituents, not only as private sector entities and agents of change, but also as beneficiaries of private sector engagement.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to partnerships. Collaborations, and ultimately solutions, must be tailored to different needs, different contexts and environments and different expected outcomes. Our aim in building these partnerships is not only to support our Members in eradicating hunger and poverty, but also to meet our aspiration of leaving no one behind through transformed food systems which guarantee better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life. In the end, it is about identifying those engagements that are SDG-aligned and will create real impact on the ground.

In engaging the private sector, does FAO risk compromising its neutrality or impartiality?

Increasing engagement with the private sector will of course involve some degree of risk, but it is a risk that can be effectively managed. This is the approach we must take if we want to start a dialogue and build trust and outcome-driven collaborations with the private sector.

FAO is fully committed to safeguarding our neutrality and impartiality, especially as it relates to our standard setting and normative work. The Organization must protect its reputation and integrity from real or perceived undue influence, which is why our engagement with the private sector is guided by clear principles which will help us to effectively manage any risks and ensure adequate safeguards which guarantee the full independence of FAO’s decision-making processes.

An integral part of the new Strategy is a comprehensive guide for FAO personnel on engaging with the private sector, which will help us to further minimize risks by empowering our staff to collaborate with the private sector in a way that adheres to our United Nations values.

Finally, why should the private sector partner with us? What does FAO have to offer?

As a global leader in food and agriculture and an advocate for innovation in agri-food systems, FAO is able to connect its Members with relevant private sector entities around shared priorities and investments in food and agriculture, helping to link people all along the value chain to opportunities like training, capacity development, access to finance, technology and infrastructure solutions.

We have also heard from the private sector that they value FAO as an honest broker of multidisciplinary alliances. As an independent, objective and neutral knowledge facilitator, we help build connections - not just between governments and the private sector, but also with the financial sector, cooperatives and academia. For example, in Ghana, we’ve brought together government officials, private financiers and other stakeholders in agri-food systems to explore options for designing and integrating innovative financing and risk-management instruments, such as crop insurance, as part of the country’s agricultural investment plans.

Finally, and most importantly, FAO is a provider of globally recognized norms and standards which can help private sector businesses to better align with the SDGs, with the capacity to plan, develop, measure and communicate on the impacts of their operations in the agri-food sectors.

We have no time to waste if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030, and we look forward to working with the private sector to accelerate our shared ambitions for tomorrow’s agriculture, food security, nutrition, rural development, and the sustainable use of natural resources. Joint, coherent and decisive action is needed now!

Read more: FAO Strategy for Private Sector Engagement, 2021-2025