In July, member states of the United Nations gathered in New York for the 7th session of ECOSOC annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development. Among the key items on the agenda were the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) on the progress made towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Estimated forty-seven (47) countries, many coming from the developing world, participated in the VNRs this year. Additionally, many civil society platforms on SDGs held side-events to present shadow / alternative reports to counter-balance government narratives.
VNRs afford countries the opportunity to present progress made in the implementation of the Agenda 2030. The assigned theme for this year was ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,’ organized around SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), SDG 13 (Climate Action), SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).
What is noticeable in the process is that contributions of philanthropy - particularly foundations -at the country level either do not make it into these reports or at best given obscured prominence in specific country context. True, the level of financial commitments to implement the SDGs from multilateral and bilateral support, and of course, directly from national governments far outweighs that of philanthropy. Nonetheless, philanthropic foundations are estimated to have contributed about $364 billion to the SDGs by 20301. Of course, this is dwarfed by the estimated $3.5 trillion per annum required in developing countries to achieve the SDGs2. Given that foundations are not risk averse and are nimbler, these contributions could go a long way to test impactful solutions which could unlock the needed resources to scale such innovations.
If foundations are considered to be an important cog in the SDG ecosystem at the national level, particularly due to their support to the social sector, then such contributions must be reflected in the VNRs. Of course, some would argue that many VNR reports capture the contributions of NGOs (or partner organizations), therefore, including that of foundations could amount to double-counting. Indeed, on many occasions, what foundations have contributed are buried under NGO contributions; however, disaggregation of SDG data submitted by NGOs or in-country civil society platforms to national statistics offices could unshroud the actual contributions made by foundations via implementing their programmes.
It should not be lost on us that foundations support social programmes based on their mission, strategic objectives etc., therefore, rarely provide funding to social purpose organizations (NGOs and social enterprises) whose missions misalign with those of the funders. Beyond NGOs, significant resources from foundations have been poured into the social enterprise space, either by way of grants or alternative financing mechanisms such as impact investing and venture philanthropy - all are unaccounted for in many reports.
Indeed, the inclusion of foundations in the VNR process by national governments has been echoed in global platforms for the VNR process such as the Partners for Review (P4R) event in Oaxaca, Mexico in May 2019. Partners for Review is a transnational multi-stakeholder mutual learning and exchange initiative on the VNR process, organized by GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in cooperation with the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Working with the Association of German Foundations, this year’s event incorporated foundations and the VNR in its three-day programme.
There are obstacles making inclusion of philanthropic foundations difficult. For example, some have questioned the suitability of current philanthropic infrastructure support networks to the process. It appears that many philanthropy support organizations, platforms, networks and associations are either not yet suitable or not yet designed for the VNR process. Again, we are still to figure out how foundations could be clear on the value add, through data transparency. Often, project implementation cycles of less than 3 years could be too short to gauge actual impact. Also, as nearly everyone knows by now, the dogged determination of philanthropic foundations to achieve its goals could result in resolute indifference to processes that do not directly align to its mission.
Sure enough, foundations in many cases are intently preoccupied with delivering their objectives. However, they could be useful to the VNR process through providing positive impact stories at the national level; making technical input into the report, given years of experience in implementing projects at the grassroots level; tailoring interventions to reflect indicators of national interest; provide financial innovations that could scale impact; provide data on cost of social interventions, etc.
Governments have a bigger responsibility to mainstream social interventions by foundations into the VNR process, to amplify its contributions. National statistical offices should make conscious efforts to include foundations in the SDG data gathering architecture, for many countries, this is missing. Philanthropy support organizations could take the lead in providing such data. Likewise, the recognition of the challenge by the German Government led Partners for Review and Association of German Foundations is a commendable important step.
The views expressed in the blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the SDG Philanthropy Platform. The SDG Philanthropy Platform is a global initiative that connects philanthropy with knowledge and networks that can deepen collaboration, leverage resources and sustain impact, driving SDG delivery within national development planning. It is led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), and supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, Brach Family Charitable Foundation, and many others.