Why Private Sector Engagement and Leadership at the United Nations Matters

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The United Nations is indeed a noble institution that has been a source of great inspiration for me as a business leader who believes in serving our common humanity. Serving in leadership roles in the United Nations, I have been able to leverage my business success to help and serve my fellow-beings across the world. 

I have always seen United Nations development programs and initiatives as the most universal and effective vehicles for bringing the best of assistance and technical support for people in need around the world. 

Early in my life, I personally benefited greatly from the generosity of UNRWA. As a young refugee who was forced to flee his home town of Jaffa in Palestine and migrate to Lebanon, UNRWA provided me with a lifeline in the form of a fully paid university education as the top refugee student in Lebanon, thereby allowing me to turn the suffering of exile from my homeland into a blessing by securing a seat at the American University of Beirut. I have never forgotten this favor and have always had great admiration for the World Body and its network of development operations. 

Many moons later, after having established TAG.Global in 1972 as a multinational providing numerous professional services, I was fortunate to have been afforded a number of opportunities to ‘give back’ to this institution. I use the words ‘give back’ and not ‘work’ advisedly as for me it was not work, rather I took it as a great privilege and honor that I fondly look back upon to this day. 

During the first month of Kofi Annan’s election as Secretary General of the United Nations, I had the privilege of visiting him as member of the International Chamber of Commerce Board (Paris) to congratulate him on his election, I took the liberty of suggesting to him, as a member of the business world, to make it his legacy to introduce the private sector to the United Nations. As we were leaving the meeting he asked me, ” How can one reach you?” and this is how it all started, Kofi Annan promoted a new, more broad-based and inclusive approach to international development cooperation. Development came to be seen as an endeavor requiring engagement of the whole society with all stakeholders playing their part in a collaborative partnership. In particular, the private sector came to be viewed more positively as the source of knowledge, creative entrepreneurship and wealth creation.

In the year 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which called for reducing world poverty by half by 2015. In line with the new broad-based approach, the Summit made a powerful call on all stakeholders, including the private sector, to join hands in global and national partnerships to achieve the MDG’s. 

The Summit also recognized that digital technologies are critically important to leverage global and national efforts and to break through barriers with new and innovative solutions. Here again, the private sector was seen as providing the cutting edge tools to make progress on a global scale. 

As the founder of a highly successful global professional services firm (TAG.Global) and as a leading proponent of technology as an instrument of development, the United Nations turned to me to lead a number of its important global initiatives. 

First, Secretary General Kofi Annan called upon me to co-chair a high-level United Nations ICT Task Force launched in 2001 as a new kind of multistakeholder platform with equal participation by governments, private sector, civil society and the UN system to promote universal access to digital technologies and harness them to help achieve the MDG’s. 

Through hard work, persistence and a great team, we were able to launch many successful initiatives in support of the MDG’s, mobilize d new resources, provided support for national policy reform, helped to establish the Working Group on Internet Governance, and created networks for action- oriented research and outreach in support of the MDG’s. In my leadership capacity, I made a personal commitment to bring forth new ideas and do everything necessary to make the UN ICT Task Force a powerful group for cutting edge initiatives across the globe. 

I was also given the responsibility to lead the Advisory Committee on Internet Governance, which had emerged as a hot and highly controversial issue in the early years of the twenty first century. The report of this committee provided the starting point for the eventual decision taken at the World Summit on Information Society in 2005 on Internet Governance including the continuation of the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance. 

I also led the Arab Regional Network and the Working Group on Human Resources and Capacity Buildng set up by the Task Force. The work done by the Task Force to promote policy reform and launch multistakeholder initiatives contributed significantly to the rapid spread of mobile telephony in Africa and other parts of the developing world with a powerful positive impact on the marginalized and the underprivileged communities in rural and remote areas.

The United Nations recognized the pioneering work done by the Task Force by giving it the ‘UN 21 Award’ which is its highest award. The success of this initiative spawned the establishment of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UNGAID) as a broader, successor platform for partnership building. I was asked again by Secretary General Kofi Annan to lead this new global network of networks. 

At my suggestion, in 2005, the United Nations Economics and Social Council (ECOSOC) decided to hold a special stakeholder meeting on green buildings in partnership with UNGAID. This proved to be very successful in forging partnerships to bring ICT technologies in the service of sustainability in urban development. 

Under my leadership, UNGAID spearheaded a multi-pronged effort to promote digital development in developing countries through hosting summits, raising funds, launching projects and organizing very fruitful ICT meetings for youth including the ICT for Youth Conference in Geneva and Our Common Humanity Meeting in New York in 2006. 

Building on this success, UNGAID organized a successful meeting on sustainable urbanization in partnership with UNDESA, UNHABITAT, The American Institute of Architects and United Cities and Local Authorities (UCLG), where mayors from across the world were invited to speak about their cities. 

Our discussions at the conference encouraged a group of architects and urban planners to establish the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) in New York. I was asked to serve in the capacity of Chairman of its Advisory Board which I have proudly done since its inception in 2009. The CSU has since developed into a global professional network for policy-makers, architects, urban planners, designers, mayors, local leaders and academics to promote sustainable urban development. The CSU’s work includes increasing awareness about emerging issues, facilitating knowledge transfer between and among policy.

Over the decades, I have been given the honor to serve the United Nations in other leadership positions which are too numerous to recount here. Still, I will mention a couple of the most important ones: 

In 1998, as Chair of the UN Working Group on International Standards of Accounting and Reporting, I convened an expert group which produced the first ever report on principles and guidelines for environmental accounting and reporting standards. Although the report was not approved at that time as it met with opposition from some member states, the need and urgency of such standards has only grown in this era of rapid climate change. 

From 2006 to 2008, I was accorded the privilege of chairing the United Nations Global Compact, world’s largest corporate responsibility initiative with over 15000 signatories from over 160 countries. The Global Compact encourages companies to adhere to ten principles of corporate responsibility in respect of internationally proclaimed human rights, labour standards, and environmental sustainability. The Compact also encourages companies to support broader societal goals, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs). As its chair, I worked to expand the outreach of the Global Compact particularly in developing countries, so that it has come to acquire a near universal membership. I also helped make it focus more and more on the implementation of the SDGs and on meeting the existential challenge of climate change. 

My purpose in recounting these success stories is to illustrate how cooperation among different stakeholders can help leverage their expertise and knowledge and how the private sector can be a key partner in accelerating international development. Even more importantly, my own experience in working with the United Nations in many leadership capacities over the decades has confirmed me in my conviction that, in spite of all its flaws and weaknesses, the United Nations is a force for good in our fragile world. It is indispensable as a unique, universal and neutral platform for people to come together to achieve shared goals. I would like to conclude by thanking all those who worked with me in the service of the United Nations and, through it, our human family.


By H.E. Dr. Talal Abu Ghazaleh, Chairman and Founder of TAG Global and Honorary Chairman of the CSU Advisory Board