(Texte disponible uniquement en anglais)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In recent years there has been significant discussion in different fora on the commitment of business to take a more active role in society. We have come a long way, but we still need a change of mindset. We need to work towards increased awareness, an acknowledgement and commitment by the corporate sector to take more responsibility for the creation of welfare and wellbeing for society and the people. Business should go beyond mere philanthropy.
Nowadays, it is about conciliating short term economic gains with pursuing social goals and respecting universal values. Why should business do this? The answer is simple: because it is good for business and, in the long run, it creates prosperity.
I was invited here to introduce this still sensitive issue. But the number of believers is growing.
So I congratulate the Vlerick Alumni for their bold choice of the discussion theme for this evening: Business Has a Contract with Society.
You Alumni have been educated in the Vlerick spirit. Your website states that this means with openness, vitality and a passion for innovation and enterprise. These are the values with which you can shape the future of global business. You can help future generations to meet their own needs and in so doing contribute to general prosperity.
I am convinced that global business benefits if corporations, governments and civil society make a commitment to work together on social and environmental issues.
I notice that the number of so-called "green CEOs" in Belgium is growing constantly. This is indeed a positive development.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The goal is to reinforce corporate sustainability. But this concept is still evolving.
As an Honorary President of UNICEF Belgium, I want to add a new angle to the discussion this evening. Quite recently a new set of ten universal principles was adopted to protect and promote the rights of the child within the corporate context.
It is a fact that children - and, for that matter, women too - are the most vulnerable and often most marginalized members of society. More so in some countries than in others. But poverty, violence and abuse, lack of access to healthcare and education are still widespread.
In 2012, a set of ten "Children's Rights and Business Principles" was put together by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children. The first of their kind, these principles set out the actions that companies should take to support children's rights in the workplace, marketplace and community. They are aimed at investing in child-friendly policies and finding the right balance between:
On the one hand,
And on the other hand,
Research shows that companies do not systematically include children's rights among their main corporate responsibility objectives. It is important, therefore, to promote good corporate governance in this regard.
Investing in children is investing in the future, since childhood is a unique window of opportunity and development.
Today, children are important to business as stakeholders - as consumers, employees, future business leaders and future policy makers. They represent significant purchasing power and can be a powerful force for change. They can make or break businesses that are not acting in their best interests.
A growing number of companies are sensitive to this development. They have gone beyond seeing children and young people as simple consumers. Children's rights have become a strategic focus area for them. Some businesses are looking deeper, and offering programmes that actively promote leadership skills to socially disadvantaged children; that offer young people insight into big business. Some even use children's creativity and ideas to create new products. There is no doubt that it makes commercial sense to listen to children and youth.
So, let us not underestimate the value that young people can represent for business and the markets. But at the same time, let us not underestimate the impact that business can have on their daily lives.
These days, business leaders pay more attention to education. They know it leads to better-paying, more productive job opportunities, without which an economy cannot grow and people will not prosper.
Likewise, many companies have already adopted a code of conduct, or have created a plan to help prevent child labour, sexual exploitation and poverty.
The Telecom sector has a particular responsibility, as the widespread use of mobile phones, the internet and the impact of the social media are at the centre of youth activity. But young people see opportunities where adults see issues; they find solutions instead of problems. They can be quite innovative in their thinking and have their own perceptions of company behaviour and products.
Yet another area where there is considerable scope for positive action to protect children - and women - against exploitation is the travel and tourism industry. And there are a number of codes of conduct to which companies in the sector can adhere.
The toy industry, too, pays increasing attention to the quality and safety of its products.
The health sector focuses more and more on children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa; and on procuring vaccinations to decrease child mortality.
These are just a few examples of the crucial role business can play in children's welfare.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I do not want to leave this gathering without drawing attention to the importance of women-friendly policies in the business context too. The empowerment of women and girls is a driving force for economic development. Women constitute half of the world population. That means they make a considerable contribution to national growth. I support women's entrepreneurship and women's business ownership. During my field visits abroad I have spoken to many women. I have seen their strength and witnessed their vulnerability. Violence within and outside the workplace is an impediment to empowerment. Bad working conditions cause human suffering.
Education, skills-building and employment, with respect for women and children's integrity and welfare, should be at the centre of a sustainable business policy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In recent months I have met several Belgian business leaders who subscribe on a voluntary - but accountable - basis to these universal values. I congratulate them on their firm commitment to promote and protect the rights of women and children. And I encourage others to join them.
We can only succeed, if business, government and civil society cooperate and collaborate in an effort that will pay off in prosperity and peace.
I thank you.