Business has always been involved with the rest of society. Government affects corporate affairs through legislation and regulation, and the recent financial crisis and its aftermath provide ample evidence of the government's new role in a "private" sector that is increasingly becoming a hybrid. At the same time, corporations and business associations have long pursued a strong interest in social and political issues. Corporate philanthropy, corporate social responsibility initiatives, and efforts to shape public policy are all elements of this involvement.
Several factors, however, suggest that there is now a case for corporations to do more. The relative importance of business in society has increased as companies have grown and merged, as governments in Washington and elsewhere have become financially stretched, and as globalization has raised the salience of economic issues. Businesses have on-the-ground knowledge from their global presence. And contributions from the private sector are needed in developing the technologies and deploying the resources to meet this era's principal challenges, from terrorism and climate change to pandemic disease and poverty.
Firms operating overseas have a number of opportunities to play a positive role, and many already are. One priority area for international firms is education, especially in places like the Arab and Muslim worlds, where basic (not to mention quality) education is often lacking. Public-private initiatives are a good model: corporations could work with governments, NGOs, and others to identify and support best practices, with girls' education being a particular focus given its large economic and social benefits.