Bill, Melinda, and the SDGs

by | May 12, 2015

About a week ago, the Humanosphere blog caused something of a stir in development circles with a piece on the UN’s draft Sustainable Development Goals entitled “Gates Foundation rallies the troops to attack UN development goals“. Its headline message:

The Gates Foundation really dislikes what the international community intends to do over the next 15 years to reduce poverty and inequality.

The post went on to claim that “the SDGs were not just debated and critiqued at [the Foundation’s annual Global Partners Forum in Seattle, which took place last week]; they were downright ridiculed, repeatedly”.

A week later, Humanosphere ran a follow-up by the same author, which included quotes from an interview with Mark Suzman, Gates’s president of global policy, advocacy, and country programs. According to this piece,

While Suzman acknowledged that there were plenty of critical – and yes, even snarky – comments made at the Gates Forum about the SDGs, he said it would be incorrect to interpret this as lack of support for what the UN agenda is aimed at accomplishing in general.

Fair enough – I’ve known Mark Suzman a long time, have huge respect for him as a development policy expert, and know him to completely straight-up about what he thinks and where he’s coming from. And I also understand how participants at the Global Partners Forum were feeling if (as Humanosphere paraphrases Mark),

The concern at the Gates confab appeared to be that the SDGs were looking more like vague or aspirational goals, such as MDG8, and moving away from the successful strategy of focusing on simpler, easily identified and tracked goals.

But the kerfuffle over the Gates Foundation’s stance on the SDGs still raises a couple of interesting questions worth considering.

Two very different reasons for disliking the SDGs

The first is about the fact that there are two quite distinct bases for disliking the SDGs as they’re currently framed – and it’s not entirely clear which side of this line the Gates Foundation falls.

  • SDG objection # 1 is that you may disagree with their breadth – in other words with the range of issues that are included (for example whether the framework should, unlike the MDGs, include climate change, inequality, or peaceful societies as headline Goals), and wish that they were focused on a smaller set of issues to do with absolute poverty.
  • SDG objection # 2, on the other hand, agrees with what’s included in the framework, but disagrees with how it’s communicated – either because of the verbosity of a 17 Goal, 169 target framework, or because so many of the targets are manifestly inconsistent with SMART criteria (i.e. being Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

On objection #1, I’m with Amina Mohamed, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the post-2015 development agenda, who’s quoted in the first Humanosphere piece as observing at the Gates Forum that, “the SDGs are complex and difficult because what we need to do is complex and difficult”.

I think that’s exactly right. I just don’t believe that there’s a credible scenario in which we eliminate absolute poverty by 2030 while ignoring climate change and inequality. And because both of those challenges go right to the heart of how we do development, I also think they have to figure prominently in our future development framework.

More fundamentally, there’s the fact that whether you love or hate the SDGs, they are undeniably the result of a genuinely inclusive intergovernmental process (unlike the MDGs). There’s no room for interpretation: developing countries have made it abundantly clear that they want them. So you can critique the issues they include, or you can claim to be in favour of country ownership as a core principle in development, but you can’t do both.

Objection #2, on the other hand, is I think on much firmer ground. The MDGs made for a great fridge magnet. You’d need the whole fridge door to set out the SDGs, by contrast (and most of the kitchen wall if you’re going to include the targets too).

For what it’s worth, I think it would be possible to make the top line Goals much simpler, without losing the breadth of what they cover. When Rich Gower and I were developing our thinking about the idea of a ‘restorative economy’ (for an eponymous Tearfund report that we co-wrote and which came out last month – Guardian article, summary, full report), we argued that such an economy would have three defining features:

  1. It would ensure we live within environmental limits.
  2. It would ensure everyone is able to meet their basic needs.
  3. It would keep inequality within reasonable limits.

Obviously there’s more to say on each at the next level down – the central importance of climate for #1, say, or of peaceful societies for #2, or what kind[s] of inequality #3 is talking about – but that’s it in a nutshell. And it’s also, I think, what the SDGs are basically about, in just 17 words.

But the key point here is that there’s a world of difference between disliking the SDGs on the basis of objection #1, and doing so on the basis of objection #2. I don’t agree at all with #1. I do very much agree with #2. But which side of the line the Gates Foundation falls? I’m still not sure.

The accountability question

And this, of course, is the other issue: because the Gates Foundation have rather more influence over the debate than most. Think tankers like me have the quality of our arguments and that’s pretty much it. The Gates Foundation have that plus about $42.3 billion, of which $171 million went to its global policy and advocacy work in 2013.

These days a lot of big, influential development NGOs are significant recipients of Gates money. What’s not always clear, though, is how much they receive – or whether part of the deal (explicitly stated or otherwise) is that the Gates Foundation gets to influence their messages, their campaigns, or their priorities. And this is perhaps part of the reason why the Humanosphere piece has touched a nerve – because this is a very grey area.

In the world of think tank research, it’s pretty much universally understood that funders don’t get to dictate research conclusions. When there’s even a hint of this, it gets called out very publicly. Campaigning NGOs, on the other hand, are a very different beast: they’re primarily there to influence, not be independent, and you’d expect that to mean they have different kinds of conversations with their funders.

And where that gets especially complicated is where there’s one funder that’s so much larger than anyone else. Progressives are usually more than ready to denounce the disproportionate influence of billionaires in political campaign finance – as with the Koch Brothers, say. So does that mean that we should take a similar line on billionaires donating to campaigning NGOs? Or is it OK if that influence is progressive? How would we know whether it’s progressive or not?

These questions have perhaps not really come up before because the Gates Foundation is so obviously on the side of the angels when it comes to poverty reduction. Having worked on food security for the last few years and living now in Ethiopia, I can see the good they do on the ground. And I guess it also helps to dispel any concerns about their influence that their approach to their programs has been strongly focused on technology, innovation, problem-solving. It’s all very apolitical.

But taking the same approach to global level advocacy can have quite different results and implications. Because if arguing for an ‘apolitical’ approach to global development goals means that climate change or inequality shouldn’t be part of the world’s post-2015 development goals… Well, all of a sudden, that starts to look very political indeed, and all the more so if that view also informs the agendas and priorities of some of the world’s most effective campaigning NGOs.

So what’s the bottom line? I’m not arguing that NGOs should refuse money for advocacy work from foundations, when so much great campaigning is made possible by such funding. Nor am I arguing that there should be a cut-off threshold, with only small foundations deemed permissible as donors.

Instead, I guess it really comes down to a sense that all of us have a shared interest in the highest possible degree of transparency about this huge new trend in development advocacy and funding – because all NGOs, big or small, depend on the trust of their members.

I think it’s in the interests of the Gates Foundation – and, of course, other foundations too – to be as upfront as possible about their policy positions, such as the example discussed above of whether their unease about the SDGs is about what the SDGs cover, or how they cover it.

I think it’s in both foundations’ and NGOs’ interests to publish what they pay and receive. Save the Children UK, to give credit where it’s due, says exactly how much it gets from the Gates Foundation in its annual report. The Gates Foundation’s own annual report, on the other hand, doesn’t disaggregate by recipient; to find that, you have to go through their 940 page tax return.

Above all, there needs to be transparency about the extent to which funding comes with influence over what NGOs campaign on, and how.

Of course, some degree of influence is unavoidable. The £3.3m that Save the Children UK received from Gates last year was earmarked for work on immunisation and nutrition, for example, and that in itself is a form of influence over what they campaign on.

But that seems to me a different kind of question to the one over whether NGOs’ policy positions are influenced. What happens if, for instance, a Gates-funded NGO that campaigns on smallholder agriculture has a different view of the role of international business investment in agriculture to the Foundation? Or of whether climate and inequality should be included in the SDGs? I don’t know. But I think it’s a fair question.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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