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The U.N. Millennium Development Goals: How the Social Sector, Government and Civil Society can Effectively Collaborate on Global Development
October 10, 2013

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)

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As the 2015 deadline for achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) nears, philanthropic leaders convened at the Ford Foundation on September 27 to discuss methods for effectively collaborating with the social sector, government, and private sector to ensure their work leads to substantive long-term change. Panelists discussed the significance of transparency and accountability in achieving the MDGs.

A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t.

The MDGs, created in 2000, consist of eight goals to fight poverty, hunger, and disease, empower women, protect maternal health and children, and ensure environmental sustainability across the globe. Targets include cutting poverty in half, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, and providing universal primary education. Governments have been tasked with setting and implementing the MDGs, but philanthropy plays a significant role in supporting these processes and helping to shape the post-2015 international development agenda spearheaded by the U.N. That effort has yielded the collection of input from 1.5 million people and counting through a program called A Million Voices: The World We Want.

In his opening remarks, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker praised the United Nations Development Programme for being increasingly inclusive and collaborative in these processes, and he reminded the audience of the philanthropy sector’s unique ability to act independently in addressing social justice and inequality. Walker quoted a friend of his in saying, “You occupy a unique and privileged perch in society, but you don’t use it enough.”

Speakers on the opening panel focused on the importance of seeking participation from under-represented groups, data sharing, and communication between foundations as some of the key ways that philanthropy can support accountability and transparency.

Alexandra Garita, executive coordinator of Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), and Theo Sowa, chair of the African Grantmakers Network and chief executive officer of the African Women’s Development Fund, called for bringing unheard voices into the conversations about the post-2015 international development agenda.

Garita cited a new U.N. report, “Advancing Regional Recommendations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Consultation with Civil Society,” which calls for accountability and the participation of disenfranchised people in all aspects of policy-making. “I think what philanthropy can really contribute is investing in participation…It would be really great if philanthropy could invest in regional networks of social justice organizations,” Garita said.

Sowa said, “There are still large numbers of people who are excluded from the MDG process. The U.N. has tried to reach people but it’s the usual suspects and large NGOs who are given a voice. We need to be active and proactive in reaching the people who aren’t being reached. I think that there’s still time to do that and there’s a role philanthropy can play in that.”

Panelists at the subsequent breakout session, “Fostering Stakeholder Participation for Transparency and Accountability in Governance Processes,” provided detailed advice to foundation leaders seeking to support the MDGs, including:

Data Sharing and Sector-Wide Communication
Erik Lundsgaarde, senior researcher at the German Development Institute, noted the importance of transparency about “where foundation funding goes and what it’s used for,” and said, “Foundations vary a lot in the information they provide. Going forward, there should be more attention to the usability of funding data and more disaggregation of funding data, especially at the country level.”

Steven Lawrence, director of research at the Foundation Center, said foundations benefit by sharing information about their work in specific issues areas for comparison with other funders. Lawrence also noted the importance of lowering transaction costs to enhance the availability of data.

Direct Funding for Accountability and Transparency
Another way to support this work is to fund programs like the Better Than Cash Alliance, a multi-sector effort to facilitate the market shift from cash to electronic payments globally to increase the inclusion of the poor in the formal financial sector and reduce theft by corrupt employers and governments. Frank DeGiovanni, director of financial assets at the Ford Foundation, said the program is intended to increase transparency through the creation of electronic records while reducing the cost of disbursing benefits for governments. Lundsgaarde said that while foundations deal with accountability issues frequently, funding for governance programs is relatively small compared with more popular issues such as health care.

Develop Cross-Sector Partnerships
DeGiovanni recommended using principles of comparative advantage in establishing programs and partnerships. “A lot of the problems we want to solve can’t be easily solved by one sector. Foundations are very nimble and can take risks that governments can’t. There are inherent advantages to each group. Look for comparative advantages,” DeGiovanni said.

Support Grassroots and Advocacy Organizations
Dr. Wiebe Boer, chief executive officer at The Tony Elumelu Foundation in Nigeria said corporations and foundations that support programs in other continents should look to the organizations on the ground for guidance on how to invest there. “I think we need to start changing who’s telling who how to do things the right way,” he said.

Supporting the MDGs is a complex endeavor since it involves bringing the corporate, government, civil society, and philanthropy sectors together to address issues that have inherent overlap—such as poverty, health care, employment, and climate change. What do you think philanthropy should do to facilitate accountability and transparency in support of the MDGs? Please leave your comments below.

-- Emily Keller

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