A new space is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals


Heather Grady


As the world adjusts to recent voting surprises in the UK and the US, those of us who have been promoting a universal framework, that includes fundamental goals like tackling inequality, can take some comfort that we are on the right track.

That framework, of course, is Agenda 2030, or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are no less than an articulation of the grand challenges of our time. When philanthropists question which metrics they should use, I feel we have an answer at hand – the 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs. Many of the world’s best minds formulated these over the course of several years.

Of course, having a globally-agreed roadmap for progress is very important, but is only the first step toward the world we must create for this and future generations. The SDGs tell us where to go, but not how to get there. Some targets can be met by incrementally improving adoption of policies or expanding public awareness.

But there are other goals that are particularly difficult to achieve because they are at the nexus of social change, and political and financial power like reducing inequality, and dealing with energy and natural resource challenges. These require deep analysis of root causes and paths to change.

They also require understanding of how to support movement-building as much as technology development. We have found philanthropists from San Francisco to Nairobi to Mumbai who are eager to engage in new collaborations for change.

At this point, the UN, as well as most governments, understand that the enormous challenge of achieving the SDGs requires a very different set of actors driving change and in service of influencing both policy and practice.

Optimism is needed given the constraints, not least the short-termism that dominates in both the political and investment spheres. Taking a hard look at why we may not make the progress needed to reach Agenda 2030 gives pointers on where to focus: drawing more on local knowledge and voices; creating a stronger marketplace for exchanging knowledge and tested solutions; ending institutional inertia; and recognizing the importance of shared values and responsibilities within and across nations.

As Stanford’s Banny Bannerjee notes in his work on the SDGs, solutions to our problems are non-linear, and having sufficient scale in both our ambition and our actions is crucial.

The SDGs are very scaled systems in which the behavior of one actor depends on others, and where we must discern relationships, use a sound root cause analysis, and work backwards to see what will either drive or impede progress. With the limited resources the world has, to achieve the SDGs we’ll need an acupuncture approach, with agility and swiftness in decision-making – and what the design world refers to as prototyping solutions.

This is not how governments nor the UN system generally operate. In fact, even the philanthropy sector is far slower and risk-averse than many people imagine. But all of us must adapt if we are to locate accelerators for the SDGs, and overcome bottlenecks.

Creating a ‘third space’ where co-creation can happen across sectors – government, intergovernmental agencies, civil society, philanthropy, business, and academia – is an early step that many of us are taking. Equally important, we’ll need to nurture new leadership models that embrace this third space and keep it going.

To that end, the UN Development Program, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Foundation Center created the SDG Philanthropy Platform in 2014, and we are experimenting continually on how to grow and enrich the efforts happening in that crucially important third space.

At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Dubai, a group of us ‘drilled down’ into this theme to uncover what we could contribute collectively. Commitments to increasing blended finance in service of the SDGs, pursuing expanded multi-stakeholder approaches within our own institutional settings, improving data and analysis, and expanding capacity for new leadership models are highlights on the ‘to do’ list.

Heather Grady is Vice President, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
Email hgrady@rockpa.org

For more information see SDGfunders.org


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