AS THE VIRTUAL UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY DEBATES HOW TO GET THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS BACK ON TRACK, SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS HAVE THE SOLUTIONS
Gloom on zoom may be the simplest way to describe the mood this week at the first virtual United Nations General Assembly. World leaders have been wrestling with the grim truth that the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, agreed when they met in New York five years ago, have been knocked even further off track by Covid-19. As the recent Social Progress Index showed, on current trends the SDGs will not be achieved before 2082 – or, depending on how the pandemic plays out, maybe a decade after that.
Yet the world does not have to settle for those current trends. Many of the solutions needed to reach the SDGs already exist and have been proven in practice by the growing community of social entrepreneurs around the world. Despite the depth and breadth of this current global crisis the transformational change necessary to achieve the SDGs is still possible – especially if world leaders stop ignoring social entrepreneurs (as they have done in past crises, and so far in this one) and embrace them as partners in delivering system change.
For the past few months, Catalyst 2030, a new alliance of thousands of social entrepreneurs, has been co-creating a roadmap for getting the world back on track to achieving the SDGs. Social entrepreneurs bring a unique perspective to tackling the big challenges facing the world. They are expert practitioners who work collaboratively with many of the people worst served by existing systems to find innovative and lasting solutions to their needs.
In this crisis, these social entrepreneurs have been first responders. Engaged on the frontlines, battling alongside vulnerable communities to beat the pandemic, coping with its wide-ranging consequences, they’re finding a path to a future we can all feel good about. They have earned the trust of many millions who have been failed by the world’s existing systems and have little or no trust in its leaders. Now, more than ever, as they take many hugely consequential decisions, those leaders need to regain their trust. Listening to the voice and acting on the advice of social entrepreneurs is key to bridging the gap between leaders and communities on the ground.
While recognising that social entrepreneurs do not have all the answers, dozens of practical and scalable ideas have been identified in the past three months by some 15 Catalyst 2030 working groups focused on specific SDG challenges. They range from strategies for helping people whose mental health is suffering during the crisis, job-creation schemes for artisanal workers, new data analytical tools to help predict vulnerability to the virus or safely reopen locked-down economies, to ways to use this crisis to crack down on corruption or tax avoidance by multinational companies. And there are ideas for tackling the even bigger crisis looming over us, which is climate change.
You can read about this work in a new report, “Getting from Crisis to Systems Change: Advice for Leaders in the Time of COVID”. We will continue to fine-tune these in the weeks and months ahead. Some of these have already been taken up and expanded upon in the WEF’s action agenda for a COVID-19 response, “Leaders on the Front Line: Why Social Entrepreneurs are Needed Now More Than Ever”. These include innovative ways for better collaboration between social entrepreneurs and partner stakeholders such as corporations, philanthropies, the UN, multilateral agencies and donors, and national and local governments.
Better ways are urgently needed to fund innovative solutions that make a difference on the ground. We are alarmed by the evidence we have seen so far during this crisis. Despite trillions of dollars being deployed in emergency responses to the pandemic and economic slump, very little of it is reaching social entrepreneurs and the social sector as a whole. Instead, they are facing severe cutbacks just as they are needed more than ever. It is time for a step-change increase in total funding of the social sector if we are to have any chance of achieving the SDGs on time.
Welcoming the Catalyst 2030 report, UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, said that “we need to create a space in society for discussing the opportunity of social entrepreneurship that is not just about the bottom line, but about putting people and our environments at the centre of what we do.”
What is Catalyst 2030?
Catalyst 2030 was launched during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos following a mind-shift among leading social entrepreneurs. They realised they needed to focus collectively on the SDGs and find ways to collaborate more effectively among themselves and with other key stakeholders to achieve the SDGs. It is a meta-network that brings together the world’s leading communities of proven social entrepreneurs, including those of Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Skoll Foundation and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.
Why Systems Change?
Even as it has increased the immediate challenges facing them on the frontlines, COVID has deepened the commitment of social entrepreneurs to do what is needed to achieve the SDGs. Key to that is systems change.
Many existing systems responsible for delivering the progress we need are not up to the task. In some cases, they actively frustrate efforts to move forward. Too often crises are prolonged and opportunities for positive change wasted because leaders use valuable resources to shore up failed systems rather than replace them with something better. We cannot afford to make that mistake again.
Genuine systems change cannot be delivered through a plan imposed from above. Social entrepreneurs know from experience that positive systems change is best achieved through collaboration and co-creation. Ideally, it involves key participants in any system that needs to be transformed, and above all, those whom the system is most intended to benefit. What is needed is human-centred and holistic systems change, a joined-up “silo-busting” approach that cuts across established institutional silos and instead focuses on nurturing effective ecosystems of social innovation.