It all begins with the children

Ulf Karlberg

At this year’s UN Global Compact Leaders Summit held in New York, leaders from around the world in government, business and wider society came together to discuss a new framework for corporate sustainability. Swedes including Volvo’s Hans-Olov Olsson and UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, were out in full force, learning from the best while sharing their success stories. One such Swede, Ulf Karlberg, the Chairman of the World Child & Youth Forum, led the conference on Children’s Rights and Business Principles. Following his presentation, Swedish Press sat down with Ulf Karlberg to discuss the important work his organization is spearheading.

Swedish Press: What does your organization set out to achieve?

Ulf Karlberg: The purpose of our organization is to establish a forum for world leaders, business, governments, NGOs, children’s rights organizations and the UN system among others, to really approach children’s rights issues in an effective and result-oriented way. We are like an information and communication platform for the world.

Swedish Press: Why children? Why is it so important for business to embrace this idea of incorporating children’s rights into their practices?

Ulf Karlberg: I think that there are two reasons for this. One is that, anyone that seriously wants to talk about sustainability has to start with child issues. Sustainability by definition is not compromising the world for future generations, whether it’s environmental, human rights or anything else, therefore if we want to be serious about sustainability we have to include child rights into that process from very early on.

The second reason, is that if you want to talk about human rights as an essential part of sustainability, clearly the starting point must be future generations – our children. It’s not controversial and their rights are not negotiable. Everyone has in principle been a child or has children of their own so it’s an issue that is easy for anyone to understand and it’s a good starting point for anyone who wants to take action regarding human rights.

Swedish Press: What about the role of Sweden? Do you find that your Swedish background comes in handy with your position? How is Sweden taking a leadership role in this field?

Ulf Karlberg: I think that’s a good question and the answer is yes. Sweden has been at the forefront historically regarding human rights issues. We were one of the first countries in the world to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, so I think because of our history, our mentality and values, we have been driving these issues for a very long time. It’s natural for us as a people and as a nation. But also I think that the Swedish export industry has had a very good knowledge and insight into human rights and children’s issues for a very long time. It is easy for us to discuss these things in Sweden and in Scandinavia.

Swedish Press: What progress has been made so far in this domain? What steps are being made to encourage businesses to include children in the discussion?

Ulf Karlberg: It’s a long process. It started in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the last 10-15 years there has been a substantial acceleration of actions. 24 years ago, the Child Rights Convention was first signed. It was the first time since 1948 when the human rights of children were clearly expressed and signed by almost every country in the world. Then as part of the Millennium Development Goals, OECD conventions and the principles and guidelines of companies, has led to a number of actions focused on children recently. The most recent one was in April, 2012 when the Children’s Rights and Business Principles were launched globally as a collaboration between Save the Children, Global Compact and UNICEF, and that’s a huge step that these major global organizations said that we have to get together and launch something that is clearly implementable and we have to involve the business community in this. So an enormous development focusing on children.

Another reason is that one third of the global population are children. In some countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, half of the population consists of children and young people under the age of 18. That’s an enormous potential and it’s also an enormous risk if we don’t get that right. More and more people, governments, consumers and companies are starting to understand that this can either be a colossal opportunity or colossal failure if we don’t get this right.

Swedish Press: Why is this cause important for you? How did you get involved initially and what led you to work with children?

Ulf Karlberg: When I was a young and very angry student in Lund, Sweden studying for my business degree, we looked at the world and thought this doesn’t look very good. Many of us joined Amnesty International and then throughout my 35 year career in international business taking me to every part of the world, I have seen the most terrible things in China, Russia, India, Asia and Latin America and in many other places. I thought we could do more, so 10 years ago I became an activist again and that’s what I’m doing now — full time. I hope that more executives with the knowledge and experience that they might have will engage a little bit more on these basic sustainability issues with us. And for me, since I became a grandfather a couple of years ago, this instinct, desire and passion to do something more has increased.

Swedish Press: What type of work is your organization engaging in? You mentioned the World Child & Youth Forum earlier. Could you share additional details of this event with us?

Ulf Karlberg: We have done this now for three years every year in Sweden. It’s a royal foundation and King Carl XVI Gustaf is our Honorary Chairman which means that we can use the palace in Stockholm for this global forum that attracts world leaders from industry, business and other trans-national organizations. We have great meeting facilities and a commitment from the head of state and his family. Our Queen Silvia has spent a lot of time and effort in childhood and mentorship. She is an expert on child rights issues. It’s a good combination for a neutral state in a neutral part of the world to organize these global conferences around these burning child issues and we are now seeing that it has had an effect, attracting some very interesting people. We’re already seeing some very encouraging action take pace as a result of our forum.

We are also starting to develop a web portal about children’s issues. Whether you are an NGO, politician, board member or chief executive, you can go in and – with one click – find out what the best companies in the world are doing about child rights issues whether it is Nike, General Electric, Nestlé or IKEA.

The third thing we do is carry out research every year about issues related to child rights. One example is the large international CEO study that we launched on the 22nd of March this year in Stockholm, with a disappointing conclusion that these issues are not very well known. Swedish Press: But at the same time, definitely a base to build upon. Ulf Karlberg: Absolutely! We can now see the gaps in the challenges.

Swedish Press: Finally, what do you recommend our readers do for those who want to get involved?

Ulf Karlberg: Begin at our site ( Then after that, see if your readers themselves or their company, government, NGO etc. would like to partner with us in one way or another.

Anton is an economics student at Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University. He has journalistic experience as a member of the Communications Management Team at the 2011 World Scout Jamboree in Sweden and previously interned for the magazine Monocle in London.