UN Representative urges private sector to align interests with development goals

Mikiko Tanaka

While oil will generate revenue and key foreign investor interest, modernised agriculture, responsible mining and quality construction for key sectors will be the real drivers of Guyana’s development, according to United Nations Resident Coordinator Mikiko Tanaka, who has called on the private sector to consider aligning their business interests with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In a speech to the Consultative Association of Guyanese Indus-try on November 15th, Tanaka observed that oil has put Guyana on the world map and the country is attracting more foreign companies.

Oil will bring in revenues and attract foreign investors to create a few thousand jobs, she said, before adding that “the real engine for Guyana’s green and human development” will come from a modernised agriculture with value chains that can also supply nutritious food to the people, environmentally and socially responsible mining, quality construction for infrastructure development, tourism and other services.

“…So partner with foreign companies with good management and socially responsible practices to invest and innovate for SDG aligned business,” she said, before urging the private sector to reject corrupt practices.

“Say no to corruption – corruption only happens if there are takers and givers,” Tanaka urged, while questioning whether the private sector could unite to pursue a principle-based compact, demanding excellence from government and political parties in return for excellence in business. “If the government does not yet have policies and measures in place to prevent sexual harassment and abuse, can the private sector take (the) initiative and set an example?” she added, while also noting that the local private sector has some way to go to generate enough employment for Guyanese youth, to build up professional standards of work both in the quality of products and services and in work conditions for the work force. 

Tanaka noted that Guyana has enviable natural endowments, such as its official language, English, which facilitates access to international networks, and its relatively small population, which may be a disadvantage to create economies of scale, but could be an advantage in providing public services and workforce training.

She also suggested that while the country’s significant brain drain is seen as a problem, it provides education and employment opportunities that might otherwise not be available in-country and she added that with the right conditions here, more Guyanese should be inspired to bring back their skills, resources and networks. In the meantime, she added, there are many other Guyanese and people from the Caribbean and beyond who want work.


Tanaka, who was asked to provide perspectives of international experience in development, particularly about the economies of Asia in order to draw some lessons for Guyana, spoke of the cases of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia, where there were significant improvements in real income and income distribution.

She said while every country is very different in historical, geographical, social, economic and political conditions and success was achieved through a combination of very different factors, there were some common threads.

Governance that provides a predictable, consistent, stable and safe environment for investment, she noted, was an important factor for the economies, although not always favourable from a social and environmental perspective.

She added that political leadership or some form of centralised government impetus played an important role but the private sector is the economic engine. “These countries have relatively strong and efficient public administration to implement policies, facilitate investments and enforce laws across political changes.  Availability of quality infrastructure, utilities, credible financial and other services also were key. There was access to a productive labour force in some cases that had to be trained or supplemented with migrant labour,” she noted.

Tanaka said state-private sector cooperation through public investments and incentives were instrumental but also created conditions for collusion and corruption between politicians and private sector that have led to some high-profile arrests and convictions in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. 

Tanaka also noted that education is highly valued in these Asian countries and the states have invested heavily in training a skilled workforce from one sector to another as economic priorities shifted. “State-financed teaching colleges, public universities and technical colleges, promotion of private education, systematic training from private companies, including state subsidies to international firms to train their local unskilled workers all contributed to the development of a fit for purpose labour force,” she noted, while adding that that international development assistance was used strategically. “The teaching profession is respected. Competition for good education is extremely high from early ages and parents invest in supplementary classes for children to compete for the best schools. Discipline, loyalty and work ethics are instilled from early ages and contributes to a relatively organised workforce but also creates consumers rigorously demanding quality and efficiency in public services and commercial products,” she added. 

Aligning business with SDGs

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, Tanaka said the world now has a common development framework.  “The 17 SDGs are ambitious and apply to every country. Zero poverty, zero hunger, low carbon to slow down global warming, peace, justice and social cohesion, gender equality, leave no one behind,” she noted, before adding that in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia there is a governmental drive to implement Agenda 2030 mobilising society and private sector.

Further, she noted that a report issued in 2017 by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, called Better Business Better World, illustrates what the private sector can do to contribute to SDGs and “makes the business case that in fact, aligning business to SDGs is what would make businesses competitive and sustainable in the long run.”

As a result, she challenged the private sector to take on “the hard challenges to transform Guyana to achieve the SDGs,” while expressing hope for a common vision of Guyana with value propositions and targets for the private sector for 2040, 2030 and 2025.

Tanaka said Guyana has vision and leadership and she noted that President David Granger’s message is clear and consistent, that is, “a better life for all Guyanese through an environmentally sustainable, diversified and inclusive economy and society.”

She noted that the UN system has accompanied the elaboration of the Green State Development Strategy and the many consultations and that the strategy is soon expected to go to Parliament and then to the public for dissemination. 

She said, “The strategy is comprehensive, aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals and very ambitious, as it should be.”

She added, “Implementation will not be easy and requires commitment and discipline, hard and sustained work over time from governments, state institutions, private sector, civil society, communities and citizens.” 

In addition to the challenges for the private sector, Tanaka said the public sector “for sure needs to seriously shape up into a coherent system of institutions that enables and enforces public servants to serve the public professionally.” 

According to Tanaka, an analysis of the UNDP’s Human Development Index found that countries have become top performers through two broad routes: fast income growth or exceptional progress in health and education. She explained that forces driving improvements in health and education are different from those driving improvements in income. She added that variables, such as trade, foreign investment and institutions, tend to differently affect economic growth versus human development more broadly. However, she said in countries with strong institutions, higher government spending on wages, goods and services were conducive to faster progress. “…Where institutions were weak, public capital investment did not translate into long-run progress in human development,” she further noted, before adding that reducing inequality can significantly improve human development. She added that policies to improve gender equity also have positive effects on human development.

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