Mobilising the Missing Trillions to Solve the Sustainable Development Goals

Cameron Burgess Uncategorized 2 Comments

— Want to cut to the chase? Click here to download the concept note —

Each year hundreds of millions of people work in tens of millions of organisations, and deploy trillions of dollars in an effort to solve the most pressing challenges of our time.

Yet despite this vast commitment there remains an estimated $50 trillion funding gap required to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals) – the most comprehensive, cohesive and coherent description of these wicked problems to date.

The existing approach presumes that a multitude of entities addressing some part of the greater challenge will, without appropriate incentives and mechanisms, self-organise themselves into effective, efficient, and scalable solutions. This is dangerously and wilfully naive. By comparison, the International Space Station (ISS), the largest multi-lateral project, and the single most expensive construction project in history, came at an estimated cost of only $150 billion. The ISS would never have been launched without clearly defined incentives, and a coordinated pathway to success – so what makes governments, corporations, and civil society actors believe they can solve trillion dollar problems through a piecemeal, incremental, fragmented approach?

In June 2017 I co-facilitated, with Linzi Fidelin of Sphaera, a design thinking workshop called ‘Scaling Solutions’, hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. The participants included representatives from some of the largest and most active funds, foundations, development finance institutions, entrepreneur networks, and impact investment groups. In framing the day we asked “who is at least 5% convinced that the SDGs will be achieved by 2030?” Of course, every hand in the room shot up. “10% convinced? 15%?”

As we increased in 5% increments, the hands started to drop. By the time we hit 50%, every hand in the room was down.

Here in a room of some of the better informed and most active organisations working to resolve the global goals, there was consensus on many things – the two most obvious being:

  1. The moral imperative to resolve the SDGs
  2. The inevitability of failure, given how we are going about it today

In fact, over the past three years as a group of us collaborators and co-conspirators (including Astrid Scholz — Sphaera, Audrey Selian — Artha Networks, Arthur Wood — Total Impact Advisors, and myself) have worked alongside and within these organisations — from Portland, to Geneva, from San Francisco to the Senegal River Basin, from New York to New Delhi — we have discovered that, when pressed, the response is essentially the same.

“Yes we can”, followed shortly by, “but no, we won’t’”

We beg to differ.

On the face of it, the bottom line is depressingly simple – there is no single entity with either the cash or the capacity to invest or deploy the requisite capital to achieve one, let alone all, of the Global Goals. And there are currently no incentives rewarding outcome over effort, or mechanisms for collaboration at the scale necessary to actually solve the SDGs.

Further, the normative behaviours of markets have become the modus operandi for any venture seeking to catalyse beneficial change. We use the patronising language of ‘beneficiary’, or the mercenary language of ‘customer’ to define the human individual we are seeking to serve. In our failure to acknowledge that every human person is a citizen of the world – imbued with fundamental sovereignty and agency – we perpetuate the Industrial Age metaphors, models and missions that got us into this mess in the first place.

That the funds deployed through most modern philanthropy, development finance, aid programs and yes, even impact investment, are the result of, and often the unwitting perpetuators of, vast inequity, is clear, and has been expounded upon at length in recent times.

Even if we were able to make peace with this conflict — which, quite frankly, we shouldn’t — and while there is no denying that the increase in the deployment of both public and private capital towards solving these wicked problems is to be lauded, with an annual funding gap of between $1.7 and $2.5 trillion, it’s clear that investments of billions, or even hundreds of billions, are simply inadequate.

In fact, a rough back of the envelope calculation indicates that we need to mobilise roughly 5% of all global capital to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

In this challenge, however, also lies the opportunity: the constellation of entities working to address these issues require financial incentives, operational infrastructure, and no small measure of humility, to transition from organisation-centric behaviour, to mission-centric behaviour.

From our perspective, this is the only way in which human society will move from treating the acute problems the SDGs represent, towards the systemic resolution of the underlying chronic issues.

We believe that not only can we solve the SDGs by 2030, but that we must. Further, we believe that the primary impediment to their resolution is rooted not solely in resources, technology, or intent, but primarily in a combination of ineffective systems design, and intransigent human behaviour driven by short-termism, fragmentation, and counterproductive incentives.

Today we are launching a concept paper: From Billions to Trillions:
How a transformative approach to collaboration and finance supports citizens, governments, corporations, and civil society to share the burdens and the benefits of solving wicked problems. We invite you to download it, read it, comment on it, and get in touch with us with your reactions, thoughts, and ideas.

This document is the distillation of decades of combined thinking and acting in service to global change. Rooted in philosophy and practice, this document is a roadmap we have already begun executing against. We are working in partnership with a number of organisations who agree that systems change, underwritten by a global digital and financial infrastructure, is the missing element necessary for not only the resolution of the Global Goals, but for each successive wave of global issues that humans will continue to face as we continue to evolve.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. And here we are, one village, 7.6 billion children. No matter where you live, what you do, or what you believe, we are all united in this great work. Peace, security, and dare we say it love, are both the drivers and the result of more effective connection, collaboration, and co-creation.

Let’s work better, together.

Comments 2

  1. Dear all,

    thanks for sharing this. Let’s recap: The difference between the MDGs and the SDGs are supposed to be that a) SDGs serve as a framework for everyone (instead of only for the aid industry) and b) Consequently, that SDGs can only be achieved if public and private funds are matched. There’s more, but let’s stick with those for a minute.

    On a) we can observe that the SDGs are hardly known outside the world of aid and donor/recipient-relationships in international development. This counts for companies as much as the general public.

    On b) we are far from making the SDGs an international agenda that beats organizational or sometimes even individual agendas. Let’s dwell on this for a moment: The SDGs suggest collaboration to be the primary mode of delivery. No organization in the world can and should claim to solve all development challenges. So far, so good. However, it is always easier not to collaborate than to do so. Especially, if incentive systems in organizations as well as supra-organizations have not changed. You can even drill this topic down to staff in organizations where annual objectives are given to people. To work across silos in organizations is and remains the biggest challenge to date for the same reason: Organizations need to show success that is attributed to their collective effort in making change happen. “How many people have found jobs because of us?”, “How many people were saved because of our efforts?”, etc. Here, strong narratives are not enough but evidence in terms of hard figures are a necessary. All of this serves the organization’s purpose to show that it matters and ultimately works successfully. But it sure does not serve a collective effort to address SDGs as a whole. In fact, it does the opposite. Such an “organization-centric” (to use the term introduced in the text) view on change obviously has its limitations, but it also works like a charm for those benefitting from it: Aid organizations, staff, politicians, etc.

    Otto Scharmer’s (MIT) work on leading from the future or Dave Gray’s thinking around the connected company are concepts that have fallen on fertile ground in the corporate world. To move from ego-systems to eco-systems is simply the only way you can survive in an ever-changing and fast-paced world. No organization can manage to cope with challenges on its own. So why try?

    This ultimately means that we either need a shock situation where aid is challenged from within (as it currently happens with the US Administration that cuts budgets) or from outside the system of aid. That latter will most likely not happen as too many benefit from that traditional mode of delivery. Hence, aid has to trigger change from within.

    1. Post

      Hi Oli,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think that we are generally in agreement on many of the points you raise, though not all.

      Firstly, while I agree that the SDG’s aren’t a universally accepted framework for talking about wicked problems, the point we make is that they are the only universal framework for their discussion. So to that end, they serve a useful purpose. Secondly, companies are increasingly adopting the SDGs as shorthand for where they are making their impact. Again, in the absence of an easy way to say ‘here is the good that we do’, the SDGs provide organisations of all stripes to identify their actions according to a universal framework. We are certainly seeing this in more and more of our conversations.

      The purpose of the concept paper is not to suggest that the SDGs should displace organisational or individual agendas, but that they provide a useful framework for uniting them.

      The paper makes the case for a both/and resolution – one in which an individual organisation can (and should) achieve it’s individual mandate and mission while simultaneously supporting the resolution of a much larger mandate/mission. We recognise that ego-centricity is a biological affliction – we are all motivated to do what serves us best. Rather than attempt to usher in a golden age of human enlightenment, we propose a path forward that, while it challenges this behaviour, also effectively harnesses it for the greater good.

      You speak to ‘incentive systems’ which is at the core of the paper. We are actively building these very systems – ones in which:
      – funders can align their funds towards success
      – organisations are motivated to achieve significantly greater funding on the basis of collaborating to solve a problem that is too large, and too complex, for them to solve on their own

      The note in its entirety covers these issues in detail. The approach we propose is to:
      – monetise the negative externality
      – fund on success, instead of on effort
      – use metrics for demonstrating the delta of improvement from baseline
      – develop financial instruments that are attractive to mainstream capital
      – use governance systems that are truly equitable
      – use distributed ledgering to appropriately compensate all participants in the resolution of the problem

      This is quite clearly a complex exercise, and we definitely don’t have it all figured out yet – so getting this sort of feedback is invaluable. Thank you! I’m sure Astrid will have feedback as well.

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