GSMA still wants telcos to be in the SDG business somehow

"Our progress towards [SDGs] should be on every board agenda." GSMA director-general Mats Grynard at MWC19. Image credit: GSMA / MWC 2019

The GSMA wants telcos to seriously integrate SDGs into their business models. What could go wrong? Well, a lot actually …

MWC19 is done and dusted, and as far as the main keynote stage goes, for the most part it was the usual self-promoting hype, with reality checks few and far between.

And that was the just the GSMA’s opening remarks.

I kid.

Actually, director-general Mats Granryd’s keynote this year was quite striking in that it was his most explicit call yet for the mobile industry to not only to position itself as a positive force for global change, but to integrate that goal into its various business models.

To be sure, for some time now the GSMA has been pushing the idea that mobile can boost your GDP and solve the world’s social ills, particularly for areas like gender and financial inclusion. And last year, the GSMA even made the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the overarching theme of MWC18.

But this year, the emphasis was less on how mobile could help advance progress SDGs and more on how mobile industry companies need to put the SDGs at the heart of their business strategies.

“Our progress towards these goals should be on every board agenda, every single time,” Granryd said onstage. “Why? Well because we can, because we should, and because it is good business, but it’s also what is increasingly being demanded by shareholders now.”

To make his point, Granryd cited a recent quote from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if you have the leadership abilities to manage environmental and social governance matters, you have the leadership ability to lead your company to sustainable growth. (And thus companies like BlackRock are more likely to invest in your company.)

“This is great news for you for me and everyone else that believes that this is the right way to conduct business,” Granryd said. “These goals are no longer something that would be nice to do. These are goals that we just have to do – we must do them.”

Granryd also said the mobile sector has a tremendous opportunity to lead on these initiatives because it is increasingly becoming an indispensable component of every other industry out there – banking, manufacturing, automotive, entertainment, retail, utilities, etc – as the mobile phone becomes the central communications device in people’s lives.

“We are truly at the heart of the global industry. But we have an opportunity … to become its soul,” said Granryd – which is grandiose and a little creepy, perhaps, but it’s not wrong.

The obvious question is: can the mobile sector actually live up to the GSMA’s lofty goals?

Well, it could. But there are some key obstacles, starting with the fact that operators are only likely to pursue SDG initiatives as long as there is a tangible ROI. Which also means any services that advance SDG goals will necessarily be available only to those with the ability to pay for them – which isn’t really in the spirit of the SDGs unless you can figure out how to introduce low-cost services that literally everyone can afford.

The other challenge of integrating SDGs into mobile business models is that you have to be sincere about it. For years, many companies have treated CSR as a bolt-on policy to be trotted out as a PR stunt when they need some good publicity. Many consumers tend to see right through that. Even for those who claim to take CSR seriously, it’s incredibly easy to get it wrong, especially when it becomes a decision of profits over morality.

Facebook is the current go-to example of this. Mark Zuckerberg talks a lot about making the internet accessible to everyone and how it will make people’s lives better – and he may actually believe that. But it’s becoming clearer every day that for Facebook, the best thing about connecting everyone in the world is that it will have even more personal user data to sell to whoever wants I t– even data it says it won’t use for that purpose. (For example, it’s now being reported that Facebook is selling all the phone numbers that it said would only be used for two-factor authentication and nothing else – they’re even selling the numbers they collected via Instagram and WhatsApp. And there is no opt-out option.)

That’s all part of the Facebook business model, of course. The point is that when it comes to CSR vs profits, the latter takes priority – it has to. There’s no reason to assume that won’t be the case with mobile operators as they try to embrace SDGs.

I don’t think that makes it impossible for telcos to implement SDGs. But I do think if telcos treat it like another standard CSR play, it’s not going to boost the kind of trust and credibility in the mobile sector that the GSMA has in mind.

If you’re going to implement SDG initiatives, take it seriously – don’t treat it like a PR opportunity. In fact, don’t even promote your SDG cred – just roll out your services, bill accordingly, make the world a better place and humbly go about your day like it’s something you would have done anyway.

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