How to Go From Aspiration to Implementation on the SDGs

August 7, 2015

A call for clarity on how the private sector and social sectors can coordinate on implementing the sustainable development goals

As important as the agreement reached last month at the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was, it was just a beginning.

That much was driven home—even on the first day of the conference—in a speech by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in which he stressed the need for cross-sector collaboration: “Now is the time to translate the best ideas and expertise of all our institutions into action. To go from billions in official assistance to trillions in investments, we’ll have to push even further our willingness to collaborate through creative partnerships.”

The immediate context was financial: While official development assistance (ODA), the backbone of most development financing, stands at $135 billion per year—reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require funds estimated in the trillions. So ODA, even with the additional $400 billion in financing announced by the International Monetary Fund and multilateral development banks would not even get halfway, which is why contributions on the financing front from the private sector are essential to make up the difference. But even then, financing was just the point of departure.

While the SDGs’ comprehensive vision for a better world has stirred justified excitement, the path from envisioning a better world to living in one lies in the details of implementation. That brings us to today, and it’s why discussion of the role of the private and social sectors’ contributions is essential. The same week The Conversation published a piece voicing concern about avoiding the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals, The Guardian offered a powerful framework outlining how businesses, government and civil society should each approach action on the SDGs along with recommendations on how these actors can and should coordinate collaboration.

An invaluable conceptual framework to be sure—but what about resources for organizations just tuning in that don’t yet see where they can make an impact? If many NGOs are unsure of the nonmonetary value of partnerships, perhaps it’s because private sector firms could be clearer on this themselves.

“A lot of private sector companies complain that there are too many SDGs and that they don’t know where they can interface with policy makers on implementation at the national level,” commented Ariel Meyerstein, Vice President of Labor and Corporate Responsibility at the United States Council for International Business (USCIB). To address this, USCIB has compiled a database of examples of current public-private partnerships on each of the sustainable development goals.

Salah Goss, Vice President, International Development at MasterCard, emphasizes the need for an immediately actionable strategy for coordinating public-private action on the SDGs. One way to look at collaboration on technical capacities recasts a familiar phrase: reduce, reuse and recycle:

  • Reduce unnecessary overhead and redundant spending
  • Reuse a common platform and standard across multiple users and purposes instead of building from scratch for each use or each partner
  • Recycle technology, skills and data to improve operations and generate insights that drive understanding, efficiency and impact

Goss notes that this phrase came about in the context of thinking about how best to approach integrating and leveraging technology to achieve the SDGs, especially for maximizing the scope of initiatives. “It not only speaks to the efficient use of resources to tackle the funding and resources gap, but also to the opportunity to accomplish more sustainable results by putting in place a technology ‘backbone’ that can scale across SDGs and avoid duplicate investments.”

But, she adds: “We should also keep in mind that, at the same time, certain development challenges addressed by the SDGs are complex and often country-specific. They may not be addressable by standard off-the-shelf solutions or execution strategies. So it is equally as critical to have an on-going partnership that allows the private sector to develop innovative solutions for social-sector actors to more efficiently achieve their goals.”

Sustained private-sector engagement is about more than just sheer stamina in seeing initiatives through to 2030; it’s about the creativity needed to make an impact where impact has never been made before.


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