Going digital multinationals: Navigating economic and social imperatives in a post-pandemic world

23 April 2021
Niraja Srinivasan, et al.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the economic imperative facing brick-and-mortar MNEs; i.e., their need to build commercial resilience in response to Industry 4.0 (4IR). The pandemic has also undone progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), widened income inequalities, and created a new backlash against digital globalization such that the UN social imperative – the pledge to leave no one behind by achieving the SDGs by 2030 – now appears an impossible task. Could the “going digital” MNEs that are making substantial investments in 4IR technologies take a socially proactive stance and thereby provide a window of opportunity that would rebuild momentum on the UN social imperative? Our paper explores the possible social impacts of MNE digitalization initiatives, both directly through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities and indirectly through their global value and supply chains. Because digitalization can be used for the good but requires adequate harnessing, we argue that three changes are needed to ensure that the going digitals, with the assistance of UN agencies, can simultaneously address their economic imperative and facilitate progress on the UN’s social imperative: (i) revamping the CSR function; (ii) making SDGs “matter”; and (iii) building a new UN–MNE coalition.