Investing in secure futures for the poor: Delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

With the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) less than a year old, many infrastructure players are still trying to figure out what role they should be playing in the achievement of these massive global objectives.

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To learn more about the SDGs, Insight Magazine sat down with Amir Dossal, Founder and Chairman of the Global Partnerships Forum and former UN Chief Liaison for Partnerships, and Lord Michael Hastings, KPMG International’s Global Head of Corporate Citizenship. 

Editor: How are the Sustainable Development Goals different from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? What has changed since the MDGs were set in 2000?

Amir Dossal: The MDGs were a first step towards bringing the international community together to coalesce around a set of global targets. They really set the stage upon which UN member states and multilateral institutions could collaborate. But it was also clear that the MDGs did not cover everything and there were a number of areas that stakeholders felt should be included in the goals in order to create a more harmonious and peaceful society.

One of the big differences between the MDGs and the SDGs, however, is in the inclusive approach that the UN took to set the goals. I think there is a broader sense of ownership over the SDG goals that couldn’t be established with the MDGs. 

Lord Michael Hastings: The ownership of the SDGs is vitally important. The MDGs often came as governmental targets and were largely supported by governmental money. The SDG targets, on the other hand, are set between business, governments, civil society and other public institutions and make everyone responsible for creating solutions. 

The SDG goals and targets are also much more aspirational than those that came before. We used to talk about cutting extreme poverty in half. Now we are talking about eradicating extreme poverty entirely.

Editor: With such massive goals, can the SDGs ever really be achieved?

Lord Hastings: The SDGs certainly reflect a wave of optimism. And nobody would be naïve enough to suggest that there will never be poverty. But if you think about the impact of well-planned and sustainable infrastructure and its ability to improve productivity and jobs – and then all of the opportunities that go with those jobs – it is not difficult to envision a world in 2030 that is better educated, more sustainable, fairer, healthier and more productive. Is that possible? I believe it is. 

Amir Dossal: Lord Hastings is absolutely right. The SDGs are a completely new deal. They are aspirational targets and goals, set through an inclusive process. Everything that I have seen through my work with the UN and the Global Partnerships Forum tells me that – if we put our minds, our capital and our resources towards it – we can make a difference. 

Editor: Has the private sector stepped up to the challenge?

Lord Hastings: There are many examples of private sector organizations creating programs that respond to the SDGs. At the WEF in Davos in January, for example, the CEOs of Tesco, Unilever, Nestle, Royal DSM, the Rockefeller Foundation – and almost two dozen other companies – came together to launch Champions 12.3, a group of mostly private sector organizations focused on responding to the SDG 12.3 which calls for a halving of food waste by 2030. These are organizations that recognize the value – both in global terms and in financial terms – of doing what is right.

Amir Dossal: I would say the response from the private sector has been tremendous. The UN has a website where they ask people to contribute and showcase projects and there are nearly 2,000 different projects on the site related to the SDGs. Personally, I think the most exciting ones are where local people create local solutions that improve capacity and drive growth. Entrepreneurs and business leaders – like Aliko Dangote in Nigeria who is helping to build that country’s first working oil refinery which, in turn, will enable more of the resource wealth to be transferred back to Nigerians – are demonstrating the value of helping people to become more self-sufficient.  

Editor: Is this about expanding the Corporate Social Responsibility budget?

Amir Dossal: I’m certainly a big believer in traditional Corporate Social Responsibility. But this isn’t about hand-outs and aid. This is about the private sector using their core strengths – whatever is in the DNA of their organization – to create good in society. Nobody is asking institutional investors, for example, to donate infrastructure to Africa out of the goodness of their hearts. What we are asking is for them to use their experience, capabilities and skills to improve the flow of investment funds to projects that deliver capital returns and help achieve our SDG goals.

Lord Hastings: Using your core capabilities and skills to drive positive change is critical. KPMG professionals could write cheques and volunteer all day but we wouldn’t have the same impact we do when we help organizations come up with new innovative approaches and ideas that cut to the core of the SDG challenges. More sustainable cement production, road surfaces that recapture energy, renewable energy systems; if we can help bring these ideas and solutions to market, we can make a much bigger difference than simply writing a cheque could ever accomplish. 

Editor: Is there still a role for traditional aid and international aid agencies?

Lord Hastings: Nobody is saying that there isn’t still an important role for aid. But when it comes to massive problems the scale of which the SDGs are trying to solve, aid is an old solution. What we are talking about today is encouraging the market to deliver the best possible solutions and deploy capital in ways that help create jobs, reduce poverty and drive sustainability. 

Amir Dossal: I think the SDGs have also inspired the traditional aid organizations to step up their focus on partnerships with the private sector. The UK’s Department for International Development has been at the forefront of leveraging their aid assistance to create jobs and economic sustainability. And the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently refined its view on so-called ‘ODA’ (Official Development Assistance) to encourage donors to work more closely with the private sector. As Lord Hastings noted, aid is an old solution. And now we need new solutions to old problems.

Editor: What role can infrastructure play in delivering on the SDGs?

Lord Hastings: To say that infrastructure providers are fundamental to the achievement of these sustainable development goals is an understatement. So many of the problems we face today can be solved with better physical infrastructure and better communications infrastructure. We need to build schools and hospitals – but we can build fewer physical assets if people have access to online learning and tele-health services.

Amir Dossal: Much like other private sector organizations, I believe that infrastructure players need to think carefully about how they can use their core strengths to move the needle on some of these goals. In some cases, it could be partnering with an agricultural development agency to provide logistics advice and supply chain insights. Or it could be choosing to use lower-carbon materials to create a more sustainable asset footprint for a new development. Each company needs to think about what they can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

Editor: What can infrastructure players do differently to help achieve the SDGs?

Amir Dossal: I think it’s quite clear to everyone that we cannot continue on with business as usual. What we need is to start taking some risks. We need to be trying different platforms and innovating in our approach. Simply put, we need to be moving the needle from talk to action. We know the problems; we know the solutions; now all we need to do is act. 

Lord Hastings: At their core, the true purpose of the SDGs is not to eliminate hunger or reduce poverty, it is to bring dignity to those who have often been outside of the conversation of opportunity. I think that – for infrastructure players – the aim should be to create infrastructure for the dignity of those who use it. 

Learn more at The Global Goals.

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