The SDGs are a Common Language and We’re Not Speaking It

Eileen Hoffman
February 27, 2018 | 2 Minute Read
Economic Growth and Trade | Public Private Partnerships and Investment | Cross-Sector Development
Do we need to revamp the way the development community measures global impact? International economic development expert Eileen Hoffman explores the missed opportunity in the progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The adoption of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was a watershed moment for the world, not only because of the importance of the goals themselves, but also because of the inclusiveness of the process used to develop them. Because of that inclusiveness, the private sector is now speaking the same language as that of governments by measuring its contribution to the SDGs. Although the development community has been contributing significantly to the achievement of the SDGs since the beginning, we are behind in terms of reporting on it. Without speaking the same language, we don’t yet know how much the development community is contributing to the attainment of the SDGs.

This is a missed opportunity.

At a time when every dollar of official development assistance is more precious than ever, measuring donor project contributions to SDG attainment would help make the case for why development assistance is important. Speaking the same language as the private sector could enhance the development community’s ability to tap into the private sector and co-create solutions around the SDGs. With the development community’s renewed focus on moving closer to the day when foreign assistance is no longer needed, measuring our contribution to the SDGs would help both donors and recipient countries better objectively understand when that day has come.

The SDGs and the Private Sector

According to the World Bank Group, the SDGs present an opportunity for the private sector to:

  • Align corporate strategy with countries’ development priorities
  • Adopt shared value strategies
  • Play a key role in sustainable development
  • Change behavior to focus on the long-term

Since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, the private sector has quickly oriented itself to the SDGs, as evidenced by the 2017 edition of Reporting Matters from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBSCD). Of the 157 member sustainability reports reviewed, 79 percent acknowledge the SDGs in some way, and 45 percent align their sustainability strategy with the SDGs. One such example is PepsiCo, which has mapped its three pronged “Performance with Purpose” vision to the SDGs. For example, it recognizes that its products align with SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals). According to WCSDB, private sector firms contribute to each of the goals, but certain goals (goals 3, 7, 8, 12, and 13) have the most contribution from the private sector. This effort is commendable given the fact that firms are not required to contribute to nor report against the SDGs. However, firms have recognized that their business operations, products, and services do, in fact, have an impact on the SDGs and that there is value in measuring and reporting their contributions. Their reporting against the SDGs demonstrates that the private sector contributes to the global good in its core business operations, not just through corporate social responsibility.

It’s time for the development community to catch up with the private sector.

The Development Community Should Do More

In the development community, we have rich data — backed up by evidence — about, for example, the number of jobs created in certain countries. But, what is the impact of those jobs on SDG 1 (eliminating poverty)? Recent publications touch on the contributions of development organizations to the SDGs, but they don’t go far enough. For example, DFID’s March 2017 Agenda 2030 explains what the U.K. government is doing at home and abroad to attain the SDGs, and the U.S. Department of State’s State of Global Partnerships Report details the contributions of one partnership per SDGs. Likewise, development organizations have started to link project outcomes to SDGs in blogs, articles, and presentations, but these mostly focus on the contributions of single projects or single outcomes (like in the State Department report). This is a great start but none of these efforts show the full aggregated impact of the development community’s work on the SDGs. It’s time for the development community to catch up with the private sector. We need to put our heads together and develop a systematic way to translate our donor-specific results into the same language that governments and the private sector are using, so that we can demonstrate our contributions to the SDGs alongside these sectors. Doing so might just make our precious development dollars go further; When spoken in the same language, the impact of development investments and opportunities for partnerships are more clear. All of which may help us reach our ultimate goal of ending the need for development assistance.

About Eileen Hoffman

Eileen Hoffman is an international economic development specialist with more than 15 years of experience designing and implementing programs focused on private sector competitiveness, entrepreneurship, workforce development, local economic development, and household economic strengthening. She has worked in more than 25 countries throughout the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean, collaborating with donors…