UNGA Week in NYC

I have been at myriad events in New York City this week, from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission to the Bloomberg Global Business Forum to the Concordia Summit to the CNN briefing with Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation to the Atlantic Council Global Citizen Award. Here are a few observations on the week that was:

  1. Canada and France Fill the Leadership Void — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron were the stars of the week. Trudeau issued a brave counterpoint to President Donald Trump at the Atlantic Council, when he discussed multi-lateral foreign affairs, a nation open to immigration and a strong environmental stance. Macron was humble about his pan-European role, preferring to focus on the needs of his own nation in reforming the labor market, which will then prompt foreign investment. Macron also wants France to be the global leader in environmental technology, premised upon the COP-21 Paris accord.
  2. Business Gets Serious About the Sustainable Development Goals — I heard the CEO of a mid-sized Danish biotech company speak about new company values that are cast around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Mark Wilson, the CEO of Aviva, is working with the financial community to develop an environmental score card for investors, with risk and opportunity ranking for public companies.
  3. Changing Supply Chain — Both Walmart and HP are determined to end slavery within the supply chain. They are holding suppliers accountable, making unannounced visits and helping to frame local legislation. Government can be a barrier to progress, somehow afraid of employment losses that might stem from changes in legislation and regulation. HP is pushing ahead in recycling, collecting plastic bottles in Haiti that turn into ink cartridges.
  4. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative — This is a program that began as a way to increase development in Western China but now has integrated neighboring countries through rail and road infrastructure and private sector investment. Now China is trying to connect people in cyberspace via internet investment because connected countries get small businesses to scale more quickly. Lucy Peng, Executive Chairman of Ant Financial Services, said that Africa is a very promising market for internet banking. All of the Chinese panelists made a special point to say that other countries are welcome to join, that this is not solely a Chinese initiative.
  5. Trade — The new watchword is Progressive Trade agreement, which has labor and gender protection, environmental standards and living wages. This is the basis of the new Canada-EU deal that went into force yesterday. Free and fair trade is the objective — to deal with income inequality, not simply economic efficiency. One continues to hear criticism of the wealthy and of multinational companies seeking trade arbitrage.
  6. From Information Technology to Data Technology — Jack Ma of Alibaba said that technology is moving into the SME sector and into smaller countries. Artificial intelligence is moving to machine intelligence. Machines will not take over the world, he asserted. “But we do have to change our educational system,” he said. “Don’t teach kids how to do calculation, as that can be done on a machine. Teach them critical thinking instead.”
  7. Companies Should Have Values — Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, described his thought process on his increasing public profile: “Silence is the ultimate consent. Some recent government actions are not okay. Immigration is an American value; we get great talent, best in the world, to come to Apple from overseas.” He said that his standard is “what issues do we have skills in, where can we amplify government efforts, where can we move on our own.” As for how he hoped to be remembered, “If people say that I was a good and decent man, that’s good enough for me.”
  8. View from Europe — Federica Mogherini, High Representative for the EU on Foreign Affairs, said that President Trump’s single-minded focus on European defense spending needing to be 2 percent of GDP does not sufficiently take into consideration other forms of counter-terrorism, namely support for refugees and other softer forms of defense. Meanwhile, President Macron said that Europe lacked sufficient ambition, that it should aim to have a continental energy distribution strategy and other means of using scale to gain efficiency. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, indicated that Europe has turned the corner politically, with the defeat of the far right in his country, France and soon Germany.

It is indeed a very strange time. David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and now head of the International Rescue Committee, commented, “It is odd to have China as the global force of stability while the USA is the revolutionary on the global stage intent on upsetting the status quo.” Business seems intent on following through on its Paris Accord commitments, finding advantage with consumers and employees alike. Mars announced that it would invest $1 billion over the next three years to include small holder farms in supply chain, while Cargill has decided to build roads in certain African countries and provide smaller storage facilities so that farmers can get better prices for their crops than at harvest. An up-tempo offense works well in basketball, leading to easy fast break baskets. Keep up the pace, folks, we are putting points on the board in the right way.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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