Can the SDGs spark a radical approach to philanthropy?


Henrietta Moore


The United Nations will take a major step towards a more holistic approach to achieving global prosperity when it agrees the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its summit in New York this month.  The new set of SDGs will also impact the way philanthropy is carried out.

As things stand, philanthropic foundations are increasingly favouring impact investment to realise their missions and strategic goals.

Social entrepreneurship is seen as the most effective way to fix definable problems on the ground that can be tackled by implementing a series of actions. These actions might require significant research or imagination, and involve many agencies, but there is usually a specific objective and measures of success.

Looking across the current philanthropic landscape, there are numerous initiatives of this kind, each of which individually are full of merit. The Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” encourages urban robustness in the face of social, economic, and physical challenges. Meanwhile, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa works towards food security and enviromentally-friendly agriculture and is funded by both the Rockeller and Gates Foundations.

Yet while these are honourable causes, social entrepreneurship can also encourage a piecemeal approach that serves to alleviate individual problems in a particular way or overly focus on a certain region. Very quickly, foundations can become preoccupied with their own priorities – which are too often predicated on a particular worldview of the most effective method for relieving pressing problems. Organisations are often under pressure to see a return on investment, which means, unfortunately, that projects can be left directionless and floundering once targets are achieved.

Understandably, philanthropists want to feel as though they are tackling problems in a measurable way. However an overemphasis on targets can become dangerously myopic  and lack an overall, guiding vision. Once we’ve tackled individual priorities like infectious diseases or carbon emissions, what then? What we’re lacking is a theory of change that articulates what we want all of these highly worthwhile and sincere efforts to add up to.

So how do the SDGs fit into all this? Crucially, unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before them which only covered the so-called ‘developing world’, they will be applied universally. This means benefactors have the chance to become genuine partners in a global movement, working alongside the UN to ensure the successful implementation of the SDGs.

Already, philanthropists are stepping in to play a greater humanitarian role as UN agencies find themselves in financial turmoil. As reported earlier this month, its humanitarian agencies are on the verge of bankruptcy as they struggle to cope with crisis after crisis. So it’s more important than ever that philanthropists rally around the new goals to ensure effective collaboration with the UN, national governments, business and industry, and wider society.

Unfortunately, there seems to be scepticism from some big names about the new direction set out in the SDGs. UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated last year that the 17 proposed goals were “too many to communicate effectively” and needed to be simpler and more focused. More recently, the Gates Foundation was accused of taking an unsupportive attitude at its Global Partners Forum in May, where Mark Suzman, Chief of Policy and Advocacy, joked that, “It’s like ‘No targets left behind’ ”.

While it’s right that the international community should be debating the SDGs, what we really need is for governments, businesses and philanthropists to all come together to express a shared idea of what a sustainable future will look like – and how they can pool their resources to make it a reality.

That unifying approach needs to be about ensuring global prosperity. Prosperity will look different in different contexts, but at its heart is the urge to enable people to flourish in ways that go beyond financial growth to encompass broader considerations for the planet and the rest of humankind.

This is why the proposed SDGs are on the right track, having undergone the largest consultation programme in the UN’s history to collate ideas. Taken exclusively, the first goal to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” seems overambitious and vague. However, when we view it as a component in a 17-part set that cover themes such as health, gender equality and climate change, it starts to become a lot more tangible. Indeed, it is impossible to consider a sustainable, poverty-free future, in which inequality and environmental issues have not been tackled.

If philanthropists approach the SDGs with a cooperative mind, we could see a significant shift to a strategy that works towards a prosperous, sustainable future for all. This vision can then be supported by a range of practical approaches to meeting individual targets, preventing projects becoming an ultimately unsustainable series of disjointed ends in themselves.

Prof Henrietta Moore is director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity.

For more discussion on the SDG debate, listen to our Alliance Audio podcast.

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