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What We Know, What We Don’t, and Leveraging Trends to Achieve the SDGs

Claudia Juech — CEO and President, Cloudera Foundation
Rachel Korberg — Former Associate Director, Economic Equity Opportunity


How can the world get beyond the commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and move toward actual success? The OECD Global Forum on Development brought together policymakers, funders, and business leaders from around the world to discuss this question, and we shared some of our thoughts.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed to be ambitious, but the world already knows how to achieve some of them. In these cases, the call to action involves scaling up proven solutions. But for other SDGs there are no ready answers, so we need to start by making risky—but smart—investments in innovation.

For example, smallholder farmers seeking to increase their production in an environmentally responsible way largely know what works—as do the policymakers that represent them, the funders that invest in them, and the businesses that rely on them. There’s rigorous evidence on these tested solutions, developed over the course of decades, so success will involve rallying around them and doing the hard political, human, and funding work of overcoming barriers to scale and getting capital to where it’s needed.

“Problems that fall into this ‘don’t know what works yet’ camp require different approaches than those with tested, proven solutions.”

But what about for those other problems, like ocean acidification? If current trends continue, some forecasts suggest that there would be a mass extinction of marine life by the end of the century. Ocean acidification is devastating, not just for ecosystems but also economies and communities—half of the world’s livelihoods depend on healthy oceans. While there are some promising early-stage technologies and policy innovations, none has a proven track record of success at scale. For problems like this, we need to experiment, invest in innovation, and take smart risks—and quickly.

Problems that fall into this “don’t know what works yet” camp require different approaches than those with ready solutions, and neither is likely to be served by being collapsed into the same planning, policymaking, and investment processes. Philanthropy plays a special role in addressing problems that lack proven solutions: We can use our capital to take risks for the public good where others may be more reluctant.

But we can’t think of the SDGs in a vacuum—we need to consider the trends and the momentum around them, and then leverage that to multiply and scale impact.

We think of it like flying a kite: To fly a kite, you need a big gust to first launch it into the air and steady wind to keep it aloft. Even the best kite managed by the world’s best kite flier still won’t soar without the wind. There are always forces beyond our control that shape whether our work and investments fly or fall. So as funders, policymakers, activists, and business leaders come together, how can we leverage the trends, momentum, and incentives around the SDGs to accelerate and multiply our impact? Here are just two trends, among many, to consider:

  • The rise of private capital for public good.
    There’s an estimated 2.5 trillion dollar annual funding gap needed to achieve the SDGs in lower- and middle-income countries. This gap can’t be filled through aid alone, and luckily it doesn’t have to be. Globally, there’s currently $200 trillion (and growing) in invested assets, while investors are increasingly looking for double-line returns—not just financial, but also social returns. And even for investors who are not interested in this, our new low-growth environment makes many open to these types of investments. We’re trying to help unlock some of this $200 trillion through our Zero Gap work, which is working to develop innovative financing mechanisms that put private capital to work for social good.
  • Growing awareness about waste and desire to reduce it
    In the past, funders and policymakers often focused on producing more—be it more energy to support development or more buildings to house growing populations. As the impacts of climate change increase, many of us are instead seeking ways to do more with what we already have. We’re working on this in the context of food: 1.2 billion people are hungry or undernourished, yet one-third of the world’s available food is lost or wasted between farm and table. That’s enough food to feed everyone in the world for two months. The Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise initiative is identifying scalable solutions to keep produce fresher longer and fix broken links in the chain from farms to markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Moving forward, we’re eager to see SDG implementation tailored to the realities of the very different evidence and context around each goal. And whether we’re rallying around existing solutions to bring them to scale or placing big bets on innovations that could solve thorny problems, we need to continue to have everyone at the table—funders and investors, activists, government officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and community and nonprofit leaders—ready to harness and leverage this dynamic moment around the SDGs to really change the world.

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