A common, and somewhat frustrating, question being posed across sectors at the moment is 'how do we align with the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?' I'm not sure it's the right question.
As a recent, sleepless, parent it's like asking me whether I align with my child getting good exam results at school.
A never-ending list of factors influence students' grades: their teacher, the school they go to, its management, the area it's in, government policy, their parents, their friends, the weather etc…
Of course I align to the idea that I want my child to get good grades as defined by the education system – it's pretty obvious.
The choices I face concern how I can support my child to get good grades: which subjects are most important, what I can do and where I need the help of others.
The practicality of interpreting and responding to these types of goals is the hard bit and doesn't really need aligning, it requires a much longer process; understanding, endorsing, planning and executing.
Because the SDGs are so expansive and diverse, I suspect that most organisations will quite easily be able to see how their current work 'fits' into the framework. At the least involved end of the scale, organisations can simply align by mapping what they currently do against the framework. Easy.
Others could use the SDGs as an opportunity to contribute to their current aims – such as helping them to identify partners to help deliver what they are doing in a bigger or better way.
At the 'more involved' end of the scale, the SDGs could be used to inform the work of organisations. If we assume that the SDGs provide the best current 'checklist' of what a better world would look like, then organisations could use this opportunity to identify how their activities can most effectively contribute to this aim. This approach poses big strategic questions for organisations – especially those in the philanthropic sector, which is not particularly well known for factoring wider global development trends into its thinking.
Any consideration around what organisations and whole sectors need to do to ensure that the SDGs are realised needs to start with an assumption that all sectors bring different benefits to the mix.
We need to believe that governments are good for some things, INGOs for others, and the same with civil society, philanthropy, the private sector etc. If we're not convinced with that (and I know many aren't) then the SDGs should be a command and control tool where everyone gives their money to government (or someone else) to coordinate… which isn't really very likely to happen.
So, assuming that philanthropic capital and institutions can bring something different to the challenge – how does this fit with the SDGs? As the philanthropic sector is dwarfed by other development actors, such as governments, perhaps the best thing for the sector to do is sit back, see what everyone else is planning and then fill in the gaps?
Government representatives I've spoken with are often keen for philanthropy to take 'risks' that governments can't take (or just give their money to government programmes). This fits quite nicely with the comparative advantages that philanthropy professes, however, I do question how often philanthropy does take risks other than working in areas we know little about, or doing good work in isolation of others.
As an organisation, we support the SDG movement. We think it's important to have a global framework to help focus organisations' work, so they can identify and position their role. We're pleased to see a more multi-faceted definition of development and the dynamic shift towards all countries taking responsibility for leading their own development.
Still, that's the easy bit. What does it mean for our work?
DFID's annual budget is around £11-12 billion, so it's easy to see how the work of smaller organisations can become irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The challenge for us is to demonstrate how our work complements, and possibly informs, the work of others.
I am concerned that the SDGs will drive people towards focussing too heavily on the 'development goal', 'target' and 'indicator' aspects of the SDGs, neglecting the 'sustainable' element.
Many large institutions will be driven towards funding work that directly achieves a particular target – clearly, this is an important thing to do. However, at Stars we believe that not enough attention is paid towards supporting and developing the people, organisations and structures that actually deliver this work. We attempt to address this through approaches such as the use of flexible funding to support local ownership of initiatives.
Starting with a target and working backwards isn't always the most 'organic' or 'bottom-up' approach to getting something done. Therefore, it's likely that our contribution might focus on fuelling organisations that are responsible for delivery.
We are still in the process of deciding what the strategic implications of the SDGs are for our work; however, it's likely that it will be steered by a realistic assessment of a) what kind of role remote funders can play and b) what areas in the system we can strengthen to help support sustainable development.
Coupled with this introspection, we, and many others, face the challenge of ensuring that the course of action we take complements and informs the work of others.
I hate to end a blog with a call for greater collaboration, but I'm going to. The desire for collaboration and partnerships is so overused it becomes an empty cry. Almost every conference I've attended or report I've read, in any sector, on any theme, concludes with a rallying yelp for more cross-sector partnerships and knowledge sharing.
It's obvious, but it's hard to do. Goal 17 of the SDGs calls for more multi-stakeholder partnerships to address challenges so it's possible that this might be fertile ground for foundations to occupy.
We've had some recent success in this area through the With and for Girls Collective which was formed partly in response to the DFID-UNICEF hosted Girl Summit in 2014. Through this initiative, we've been able to convene a diverse and committed group of partners to address a common aim of supporting grassroots organisations working with and for girls.
We are keen to take what we've learned from the experience and start new conversations to inform our work, amplify it and, where possible, identify ways in which it could inform others.