12 Nov 20 | Opinion
While momentum is building behind the SDGs, lack of funding and focus on making them relevant remain key barriers
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range of comfortable inaction.” In quoting former US president John F Kennedy on his Twitter stream recently, Unilever CEO Paul Polman was keen to express the urgency needed in meeting the ambition set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “Inaction is not an option,” Polman tweeted, highlighting the “$12tn annual prize on offer by 2030” should the world, with business leading the way, succeed in addressing the world’s most pressing issues.
But he also warned that the SDGs will not be met without huge efforts. Leadership, commitment, awareness, consumer buy-in and government policy development will all be important, as will, crucially, investment.
Marga Hoek, CEO of Business for Good, agrees. She argues that to meet the investment needs of the SDGs, the global community must “change the discussion from billions to trillions”.
But where’s that going to come from? Right now, the majority of development spending comes from public sources. That needs to change if the vision of the SDGs is to be achieved, with governments working with business to find the finance to bridge the current funding gap.
So, is the investment community responding effectively in building the momentum needed to support the SDGs? A recent review by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s (BSDC) blended finance taskforce – looking at how the use of development funds to mobilise additional private finance for investment in the SDGs can have greater impact – offers reasons for optimism.
In the last five years, the blended finance market – where public or grant funding combines with private sector finance sources – has doubled in size to $50bn and is likely to double again in the next 3-4 years, according to the BSDC. More providers will see the benefits of earmarking more money for blending. But the positive change required to tackle any number of the SDGs will only come about if fund sizes continue to increase significantly and money is still made available for small-scale and higher-risk projects.
With the right investment, by 2030, sectors such as food and drink, energy and materials could create some 380 million new jobs. This economic opportunity continues to be spelled out frequently, by Polman and others, particularly to those in developing and emerging economies.
W Africa leadership
And the word is getting out. In Ghana, the president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, has placed the SDGs at the heart of the country’s response to immediate challenges such as tackling extreme poverty, dealing with climate change impacts and addressing the degradation and unsustainable use of environmental resources.
But he, too, is clear that multiple sources of funding are required. “We cannot grow out of poverty and achieve the SDGs through charity and the benevolence of others,” Akufo-Addo says.
In Ghana, as well as in Nigeria, there is, however, a growing number of companies that understand the opportunities presented by the SDG framework. West Africa business expert Wayne Dunn, a member of the global advisory board to the SDG Foundation, is excited by the growing interest and willingness of local companies to learn more about how the SDGs apply to the interests of their businesses.
Companies like, for example, the Sahara Group in Nigeria, which is actively looking at how the business can educate and inform its suppliers about the benefits of using the SDGs – and support them to better understand and report on their SDG impacts. Ghana’s Golden Star Resources has developed a simple framework for communicating its social responsibility activities in terms of SDG impacts, something that is especially important for external communications – given potential international partners will be attracted by businesses with such an awareness.
More like cocoa
But examples of larger scale public-private commitment and action – such as the joint forest protection pledge made by the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and a number of the big cocoa producers, including Mars, Nestlé and Mondelez – are still thin on the ground.
“The SDGs are becoming more important, even though many businesses don’t quite realise it yet,” says Dunn. The challenge, he says, lies in how the targets are being framed and communicated. Yes, complex monitoring processes are important for accounting. But if the SDGs are to have broader appeal and garner greater buy-in, “we need to democratise the language and the value propositions”, he adds.
The SDGs are, of course, about poverty, health, education and the environment – concepts, Dunn points out, that are “universally understandable and important”. To make a real impact though, he argues, “We need to develop value propositions, language and communications that allow more key stakeholders to see themselves, and their own interests, reflected in them.”
And when this happens at scale, of course, the $12tn jackpot really is in play.
*Join Unilever, Sime Darby, Diageo and many more at Innovaton Forum's SDGs and smallholder farmers conference in London 13th-14th March. Click here for more.