At the 2013 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, the Global Agenda Council on Values released a document entitled “A New Social Covenant”. It describes how old social contracts have unravelled, how former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, reciprocity, mutual benefits and social values have all but disappeared, and it proposes the establishment of a New Social Covenant, based on principles of the common good, dignity and stewardship of the planet.

The Global Agenda Council called for a period of global reflection and dialogue on this concept. Between 27 and 29 August 2014, global and local business leaders, academics and civil society leaders will participate in an event at Stellenbosch University to discuss the New Social Covenant, with specific reference to the South African National Development Plan.

How do you link the concept of a covenant contained in a discussion document to action that will have a real and positive impact on people’s lives? This is the key challenge that will make the difference between lip service and real impact. It is important to dispel a few misconceptions about the New Social Covenant. It is not a petition where people or companies will be asked to sign up. It is not the intention that there will be one final New Social Covenant that will inform all global discussions. However, it is possible that there will be a global working document that will provide a framework and guidelines for action, and link to other initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact. The existing discussion document is the first iteration in this process, but much more extensive stakeholder engagement will be required.

There is a logical link between the philosophy of the New Social Covenant and the National Development Plan, which proposes as its first critical action point the creation of “a social compact to reduce poverty and inequality, and raise employment and investment, founded on partnerships with all sectors of society”.

After 20 years of democracy in South Africa, one should not underestimate the legacy of apartheid. The National Development Plan reminds us that the “shadow of history still lingers”, and that the country is still divided and suffering from massive, and growing, inequality. This reminds us of the chilling words of Oliver Goldsmith, from his famous and oft-quoted 1770 poem: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

The challenge is so universal that it needs one major guiding framework, but it is too complex to have only one solution. This is where the double-pronged approach of a high-level New Social Covenant based on the values of the common good, dignity and stewardship, supported by multiple, practical and localized compacts, can be immensely helpful.

Author: Daniel Malan is the director of the Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (South Africa) and is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values.

Image: A volunteer from an association known as the “Auberge des Migrants” holds the hand of an Erythrean migrant as he queue for a daily food distribution near the city hall in Calais August 1, 2014. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol