Sustainable Development Goals – Think Globally, Act Locally

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On March 30th and 31st I had the extraordinary opportunity and honor to represent the voice of locally-focused philanthropy on two panels at the Global Forum of Development at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As representatives gathered from member nation-states and multi-lateral institutions, I took stock of the momentous nature of the occasion. We are at a critical point in global development as we build the platforms and collaborations that will hopefully fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals and shepherd our world into a more peaceful and equitable 22nd century.

31 March 2016 The 2016 Global Forum on Development OECD Headquarters, Paris, France Photo: OECD/Andrew Wheeler

31 March 2016
The 2016 Global Forum on Development
OECD Headquarters, Paris, France
Photo: OECD/Andrew Wheeler

The Sustainable Development Goals represent a major opportunity for the world to collaborate on a shared future. They are comprehensive and universally applicable across the UN member states. They will drive policymaking and official development for at least the next 15 years and could provide comprehensive indicators about the effectiveness and impact of development across multiple sectors and regions.

The Sustainable Development Goals also represent the single best opportunity to decrease the debilitating fragmentation that often plagues development. It is clear that government alone cannot address the critical challenges of sustainable development, nor should they. It is also clear that the public sectors, philanthropy, and business cannot ever hope to achieve their maximum potential if they continue to operate in isolation from one another.

Finally, the Sustainable Development Goals offer an unprecedented opportunity to also engage local communities in sustainable social change and to ensure that the voices and needs of local communities are represented in the goals’ implementation.

If we are going to achieve anything at all – we have to think locally.

History is littered with the tragedies of development programs gone wrong. Littered with programs that were well-meaning but were around doing something “for” communities, not “with” them. Littered with waste and failure.

But there is hope. Many progressive philanthropists already recognize that thinking and listening locally can lead to extraordinary outcomes.

Firelight is a fund that is supported by major foundations and progressive individuals, to seek out catalytic organizations at the local level in Sub-Saharan Africa and support them to be agents of systemic change for children and youth.

We do this because we and our investors all believe that community-based organizations are some of the most powerful change agents in Africa and represent one of our best opportunities to achieve the significant milestones set by the SDGs.

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we will need scale. But the reality is that scale will not be achieved, nor will it be sustainable if we leave out the voices and perspectives of the communities we seek to help. Local is not the opposite of scale – it is the genesis of scale.

Locally-focused philanthropy can reach across sectors to engage actors – both big and small. Locally-focused philanthropy can test innovations and develop initial innovative models that can be scaled up by multi-stakeholder collaborations, by the public sector or by the local communities themselves.

Locally-focused philanthropy can harness one of Africa’s greatest sustainable development assets – community-based organizations. Firelight understands how crucial and ubiquitous these small organizations are in the ecosystem of child well-being. They are everywhere in Africa— South Africa alone has over 50,000 grassroots groups. Locally-focused philanthropy can help these organizations become as effective as possible.

In order to grab this opportunity with both hands, we must –

Bring local stakeholders into the conversation. Philanthropy can play a critical role in bringing non-traditional stakeholders together – now more than ever we must include local communities and local community organizations into the conversation.

Don’t automatically shy away from working with national governments and don’t underestimate the potential of local government. Philanthropists often go into a country without working with the government. Often this is intentional and often it is necessary but it is a mistake when a government might be proactively seeking to engage on the SGDs.

Listen to the communities themselves. And I mean really listen. Communities have been there for a long time before foundations and philanthropists arrived and they will be there long after we have left. If we really listen and really engage the local community in our work – the intended beneficiaries won’t just participate or receive – they will champion and sustain. If we don’t really listen to local communities, the lofty goals that we have set will go unfulfilled.

Work with local institutions to make them stronger. Instead of automatically supplanting existing programs, structures or institutions – philanthropists need to consider what already works and who is already doing the work and what they need to be successful. Community-based organizations and local NGOs have history, context, and political capital. Community organizations have a lot of accumulated experience and knowledge about what strategies work in local contexts.

Recognize that community-based institutions play an incredibly important role in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Community-based organizations are particularly adept at reaching vulnerable populations and those at the last-mile. They are also the best place to collect much-needed evidence of progress on the SDGs.

Recognize that community-based institutions can take more holistic, long-term and flexible approaches. A long-term view can not only help implement the SDGs by the numbers but can also help develop community resilience and social cohesion. Investing in local community-based institutions may also reduce the dependency of developing country programming on Global North funders.

Give progress time – listening takes time. Learning what the local community needs takes time. We have to change the way we think about timeframes.

At Firelight, we are honored to be a representative for the voices of locally-focused philanthropy and of local communities in the important conversations that are happening around the Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s keep the conversation going.