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Taking the Sustainable Development Goals seriously

By Edmund J. Cain, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, May 1, 2015

Sustainable development is the defining challenge of our generation. We have reached an unprecedented and transformative point in development cooperation where the prospect of meaningfully advancing universal sustainable human development is achievable.

Sustainable development is the defining challenge of our generation. We have reached an unprecedented and transformative point in development cooperation where the prospect of meaningfully advancing universal sustainable human development is achievable.

Up until the last decade of the twentieth century, competing development paradigms froze the so-called “international community’s” ability to create a common agenda that would put us on a path to this end. When that debate, for all practical purposes, finally came to an end, the factors that led to more efficient economies, more effective governance, greater social justice and a sustainable environment began to be spelled out. The beginnings of an agenda were forged at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. The conferences and agreements reached over the ensuing two decades led to an articulation of norms and values to which the international community could finally aspire to achieve. At the dawn of the new Millennium, goals were created: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which put the world on a bumpy road to making those aspirations a reality. The concept of human—as opposed to purely economic—development emerged as a more holistic and accepted definition of development.

Fifteen years later the MDGs have given rise to a second generation of goals: unlike the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) integrate the developmental and environmental agendas for collective action. They were developed through a much improved participatory process that—it is expected—will be endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in September. Despite their inevitable flaws, the goals serve as an aspirational agenda that gives communities, countries and the world a point of reference, if not a compass, to rally behind. They include the need to promote the rule of law. This progress has been further enhanced by the creation of country-level mechanisms to improve the collaboration of all developmental actors, including philanthropy.

One country-level structure facilitating collaboration to achieve the goals is the Partnership Platform for Philanthropy. The Partnership is being piloted in five countries and supported by a few foundations, including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The prospects for the success of these stakeholder platforms has been enhanced by the existence of information technologies that will not only facilitate collaboration, but which will also generate information and data that will greatly improve transparency and accountability. Hence, all of these factors have led us to an unprecedented opportunity for improved development cooperation and universal advancement of human development.

My experience in philanthropy tells me that the evolution of events that have led us to this point is largely unknown to the “philanthropy silo,” and philanthropy is not entirely to blame for this compartmentalization of ideas and practices. The international system—specifically the UN—has historically fallen short in communicating the major role it has played in this evolutionary process. All of this is changing, which is cause for optimism. “Silo busters” have infiltrated the insular worlds of academia, philanthropy, government, international institutions and the private sector. We are beginning to speak a common language and the MDGs and SDGs have facilitated that conversation. Disruptors and risk-takers from these different “silos” have taken a leap of faith to make this happen. Philanthropy is opening its tent to these “silo busters” and is beginning to recognize the unprecedented opportunity for leveraging its potentially unique contribution to this transformative new era in development cooperation.

The Hilton Foundation recognizes the universality of the SDGs and sees them as an opportunity to leverage not only our international, but also our domestic grantmaking efforts. The challenges of poverty, quality education, and quality health care are universal challenges that are directly related to our more focused domestic program efforts. We believe philanthropy can play an important role not only by investing in solutions to a particular problem but by also by facilitating collaboration among stakeholders through partnership platforms in order to create greater collective impact. The SDGs by their very nature require such collaboration. One pertinent example of this is our investment in the Home for Good initiative in Los Angeles that has brought government, philanthropy, and the private sector together in a coalition to end veterans homelessness in Los Angeles by the end of this year and to end chronic homeless in LA altogether by the end of 2016.

Another good example is our support of the American Human Development Report, called “Measure of America.” Following the methodology of the UN’s human development index, we felt it should not only apply to the so called “developing world,” but here in the U.S. as well. This national report gave rise to a number of state—and even county—level human development reports. California has published its second report this year with the support of a number of foundations and is proving to be an important reference guide—for philanthropy and other funding sources such as the government—on challenges that are impeding human development in our state. In the next stage, we will consider ways to use these reports to monitor SDG progress in the United States.

As we face a global population of 9 billion, the challenge of simultaneously eradicating poverty, curtailing inequality and expanding opportunities without irreversibly damaging our environment is a daunting one—but it is a challenge we must meet. The Sustainable Development Goals address that challenge and offer our best hope.

Former Vice President, Grant Programs

Former Vice President, Grant Programs

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