Why the SDGs matter

Heather Grady, Bhekinkosi Moyo and Sevdalina Rukanova

One of the most important shifts in international cooperation of the last 50 years will take place in January, as the 15-year-old Millennium Development Goals campaign comes to an end and a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come into effect.

The articles in this special feature give leaders multiple lenses for analysing these goals, from thematic areas like climate change and rights to ‘modality’ issues like participation, the questions of ‘whose voice?’ and financing. We are pleased to guest edit this issue that covers this important topic, and strongly encourage you to read all of the articles to develop your own blend of commitment and critique for the ideas.

One of the real benefits of the SDGs is that, for the first time, the world has universal development goals, representing a pivotal shift in development paradigms. The practices are well-established – new campaigning movements are now led by the South not only aimed at helping the South – but have not been represented in the design of government or philanthropic programmes.

Equally important, the goals embrace and reflect the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental challenges and solutions, as well as the need to tackle inequality, and address governance and corruption issues. They also require governments and civil society actors to reflect how much conflict and humanitarian disasters undermine sustainable development.

Philanthropy Engaged

Bhekinkosi Moyo


Philanthropy can leverage its assets and experience for the SDGs
For foundations and philanthropists, these changes represent an opportunity to leverage both financial and non-financial assets, achieve greater scale, increase impact, and advance the accountability of institutions.

We can, if we act in greater concert with others in our own and others sectors, influence how the SDGs are implemented. These goals propel and enable us to shift how we think about and approach complex societal problems, and can help to break down silos between work of different actors and geographies – thus opening space and opportunities for new forms of collaboration around specific agendas or problems.

Also important, governments and the United Nations are willing to engage with philanthropy in a more systematic way. For the first time, the foundation community was formally part of the inter-governmental processes in Addis, and there was official recognition in the Outcome Document. Some foundations also took part in the official summit on the adoption of the goals, including our special feature editor, Bhekinkosi Moyo.

‘There is scepticism about the goals – too many, too ambitious, an unfunded mandate, still controlled by those in power. Much of this is fair.’

But we must ourselves engage differently if we want to be viewed as more than financial resources. If not careful, the sector will be led or driven by governments. It still remains unclear to some governments and even the UN what foundations are. Generally, they classify them under the private sector, which can be problematic.

There is scepticism about the goals – too many, too ambitious, an unfunded mandate, still controlled by those in power. Much of this is fair.

But does that mean we eschew engaging with SDG processes – or that we and our grantees and partners engage to improve them?

Foundations can continue doing business as usual, but we believe that at a minimum, they should be aware of what the goals are, and how national governments, intergovernmental agencies and civil society in the countries where we operate (including our own) aim to prioritize and implement them. For those who do engage, it can take different forms. Some might take a dynamic approach – of alignment as well as critique – with respect to specific goals/agendas.

Foundations and philanthropy need not jump immediately to adopting the SDG language but rather continue working in the same areas of their focus, because these in any case cut across the 17 goals. And ideally, even if gradually and where helpful, the language may converge, without alienating the sceptics. Foundations can continue specializing in, and prioritizing, certain goals, and may collaborate on those that are interdependent (like climate change, and peaceful and inclusive societies).

Some foundations will be particularly interested in new goals that were not in the MDGs, like inequality, sustainable urbanization and industrialization. Others might focus on addressing gaps and pitfalls around capacity, process, inclusion and participation, monitoring and accountability, and crucially, whether financing mechanisms and private sector involvement is really reaching those most disadvantaged and affected by current systems that perpetuate inequality.

Heather Grady

Heather Grady


The SDG landscape 
Our writers have contributed thoughtfully to this debate. We cannot highlight the complete range of articles here, but they include:

  • Franky Welirang of the Indonesia Philanthropy Association views the SDGs through the lens of multiple cultures.
  • Matthieu Calame of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, examines the SDGs in light of foundations’ financial investments.
  • Janet Mawiyoo and Susan Njambi Odongo of the Kenya Community Development Foundation highlight the history of KCDF’s partnerships in terms of implementing SDG‑like goals and some of the difficulties therein.
  • Jenny Hodgson and Avila Kilmurray of the Global Alliance for Community Foundations provide in‑depth case studies of community projects already implementing the kind of work needed for the SDGs. They underscore the need for incorporating local voice to inform policy.
  • Steve Killelea and Camilla Schippa of the Institute for Economics and Peace focus on measurements and targets.
  • Tax Justice Network’s John Christensen links tax reform and SDG financing, while special feature editor Heather Grady dives deeper into the financing scheme behind the goals.
  • Sean McCabe of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice illustrates the opportunity and the imperative of Goal 13 on climate change.
  • Rien Van Gendt outlines how the Netherlands government, CSOs, businesses, and philanthropy organizations have built a structure for implementing SDGs in developing countries.
  • Ana Abelenda of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development reminds us, crucially, of how poorly international cooperation has supported women’s rights and empowerment – and how vital financial support will be toward reaching the goals.

SDG’s challenge and commitment
Ultimately, this is an extremely challenging and fragile process that is here to stay, but won’t work unless organizations and individuals commit a great deal of time and effort in the coming years to work through the challenges. If philanthropy doesn’t engage, we miss a real opportunity. And while most of our sector does not take the long view, perhaps it is time to do so.

The ways to work are becoming clearer:

  • Each government has to do an assessment, identify priorities and develop a roadmap of implementations, involving representatives of civil society and business; this will provide entry points.
  • Foundations in countries across the world should learn what the process in their country looks like, who the key actors are and what vehicles for engagement are being put in place, or are needed.
  • Foundations should also listen to their partners, as well as to local authorities in the places where they work.

Some foundations may want to support independent assessment, data and evidence building, as well as advocacy at the early stages to establish priorities. Others might be better placed to support consultation at national or local level. Some will support advocacy efforts to influence budgets; other foundations are good at supporting financial innovation.

Both advocacy and engagement will be needed to bring innovation to the attention of relevant ministries. Given the unique strategy of every foundation, there will be many starting points, and much to learn.

We hope that you find the articles here a stimulus to act and look forward to debate in these pages and online as implementation of the SDGs launches in the coming months.

Heather Grady is a vice president of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Email hgrady@rockpa.org
Bhekinkosi Moyo is executive director of Southern Africa Trust. Email bmoyo@southernafrica
Sevdalina Rukanova is senior policy development officer of the European Foundation Centre. Email srukanova@efc.be

Main image credit: It’sGreg

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

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