Public-private cooperation is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations in 2015. Bertrand Badré, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, former Chief Financial Officer of the World Bank Group, and co-chair of the Global Future Council on International Governance and Public-Private Cooperation, says multi-stakeholder partnerships are the only way to address the global challenges of sustainable development but warns that they are not easy.
Can you explain the importance of public-private cooperation and international governance? Why do we need a Global Future Council to discuss this topic?
None of the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] that were approved by the UN General Assembly a year ago can really be achieved either by the public sector or private sector alone. Whether it is the traditional public-private partnership infrastructure, or health, or education, you realize that it’s more and more a world where both financially and from a skills perspective, you need to combine both.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves because this is complex, to have public and private working together. The interests are not immediately aligned and there is suspicion between the two. In most countries in the world, public authorities think that the private sector is willing to reap the reward without taking any risk. Vice versa, the private sector believes that the public sector is, in the worst case, corrupt; or is too bureaucratic, too slow, or not reactive enough.
So, on the one hand, I believe public-private cooperation is really the name of the game, but it is not a silver bullet. It is not easy, it’s difficult. We have to explain why it is important, to highlight success stories, but also give the principles that make public-private cooperation work.
How is this field changing? What are the forces driving those changes?
It’s really the results of the last 10-15 years. When you go back to 2000, at that time it was only about public money, public support, public administration, and the private sector was far away, distant, nice to have. But then at Monterrey [the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development in 2002], people started to discuss partnership but it was still just lip-service.
Then people started to realize that the money not only came more and more from private purses, whether it was the financial sector, or remittances, or foreign direct investment; but also that it made sense to work together.
To what extent can multi-stakeholder partnerships help address the global challenges of sustainable development?
It’s not ‘to what extent’, there is no alternative. I’ve been working on topics as diverse as road safety, education, or infrastructure finance, which are all part of the SDG agenda. In every situation, you really need to put people around the table. Take road safety, for instance, which is one of the key killers on earth today. It is not just a question of legislation or law enforcement, it is also a question of good infrastructure, good cars, cooperation with the alcohol companies and so on and so forth. It is really about working together, in a multi-stakeholder approach.
It’s no longer the case where the government or an international organization make a decision and then ask the private sector to join and fill the gaps. The big change now is to have everybody around the table from day one and force everybody to work together. It is difficult.
What role should international organizations play in global decision-making? How will that develop over time?
They play a critical role but they still need to adjust. They are not deus ex machina coming out of nowhere and making decisions; that has gone. They are not moving on their own, this has gone as well. They have to be part of this multi-stakeholder discussion.
It is not that easy culturally; they want to take the lead, they want to do things on their own, but they have to accept a genuine multi-stakeholder partnership. So I think they are critical in the sense that they can be the cogs between the various parts, and they also have this role of coordination with civil society.
Whether they are voters, or consumers, or investors, or people paying contributions to NGOs, civil society can take both the public and private sector up on their word and check that they are doing a good job. That’s why I call it the mortar of the system; you have to have people making others accountable. This is going to be the role of each of us.
To what extent can transnational expert networks provide an alternative to inter-governmental coordination?
I’m not sure it’s an alternative; again, we have to join forces. With the rising populism everywhere, you see the distrust of the cosmopolitan elite. You cannot just rely on experts; you have to connect with people on the ground. I don’t want a system that is floating up in the air, making decisions and pushing an agenda that is not accepted by the people.
We really have to move everybody around the table. Everything which smells international or transnational is good because the hard truth is that most issues today are not at the scale of national governance: trade, climate, refugees, most of these big issues cannot be tackled at the national level. You need to cooperate with your neighbour, so you need to have these networks and this capacity to engage at the global level in a soft and smart manner; not just the Kissingerian approach, Westphalian state-to-state.
To what extent is international governance keeping pace with advances in technology? What more needs to be done?
This is an area of challenge which I have seen during my tenure at the World Bank. International organizations are, by constitution, relatively heavy animals; they are complex they are political animals, so they don’t naturally move very fast. It shows more at a time when technology is moving very, very fast. it’s time to see what are the consequences of this and try to adjust.
I really wish that the World Bank would finance operations which are really best in class from a technological perspective. When you discuss multi-stakeholder groups, we really need to have people representing this fast-changing technological world. You cannot work in silos anymore and that is my biggest frustration in retrospect. You have too many silos and it is too detrimental to reach some form of common good.
What is the future of public-private cooperation and international governance? Where will we be in 2030?
I really think that if we are incapable of moving public-private cooperation to the next stage, we will not reach the SDGs. Even if we get to the next stage it will be difficult to reach the SDGs and if we don’t get there it’s going to be impossible. We have to move forward and not just talk and write reports. We have to show that public-private cooperation is the name of the game, it is working, it is difficult, but it makes a difference. In that perspective, international organizations, and the World Economic Forum in particular, have a specific responsibility to connect the dots and basically build trust in a system where trust has evaporated after the crisis.
What technology or gadget would you most like to see by 2030?
It’s a difficult question because there are many. With my financial background, I am quite keen on seeing how we can adopt blockchain in an interesting way. I think it can really make a difference in financial inclusion and restoring trust in the financial system. I am also quite keen to see the development of artificial intelligence, where I think you can make a difference in a number of areas.