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Growing a Movement for Justice: An Examination of the Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) propose a simple, powerful idea: that a collective blueprint is necessary to achieve a more just and sustainable future for all. Despite the monumental challenges faced by our global society—including the existential threat of climate change; the concentration of wealth and power; rising violence and discrimination against the poor, communities of color, LGBTQIA+/Two-Spirited, and religious minorities; suppression of the rights of tribal nations and stateless persons, the brutality of state violence and the repression of democratic rights—Echoing Green believes that through a collective pursuit of justice, humanity will be able to rectify imbalances of power, cease exploitation, and ensure the rights and dignity of all.

For over 30 years, Echoing Green has supported leaders (“Echoing Green Fellows”) who fight for equity by solving problems on-the-ground and in their communities. We know the importance of investing early in brilliant community innovators—people who see a problem and gather themselves, their networks, and their resources to build toward a solution. The Echoing Green community crosses boundaries built to separate along class, race, gender identity, religious, and geographic lines. This community sees and experiences how the world often falls short of respecting the rights and dignity of humanity but refuses to accept those shortcomings as inevitable.

The Sustainable Development Goals

Social innovators are creators and disruptors, but are still drawn to the promise of common frameworks, like the SDGs, as infrastructure for change. In 2018 Echoing Green began discussing our and our Fellows’ work in relation to the SDGs. Echoing Green’s unique perspective within the social entrepreneurship and social innovation field, where leaders are on the front lines of tackling the issues outlined in the SDGs, surfaces ideas and perspectives not discussed in the traditional development conversations. At Echoing Green’s 2019 Summit in Los Angeles, we brought together nearly 150 Fellows from across the world to learn from one another, meet and network with our wider community, and consider their work in the context of three SDGs: Decent Work (SDG 8), Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10), and Climate Action (SDG 13).

While we initiated a discussion of the framework and how it impacted both their individual and collective work, what we heard was a familiar and powerful call: collective action has to be collaboratively designed, with front-line social innovators and community leaders as a central voice in decision-making at the highest levels of political and economic policy. The SDGs are a critical platform for discussing the nature of economic, social, and political power in our world and how inclusivity, equity, and transparency can shift those dynamics.

Our Findings

The SDG session participants’ general consensus was that the central aim of the SDGs is valuable across sectors. By bringing together disparate actors—community organizations, businesses, governments, and activists—into a shared conversation, the SDGs can serve as a constructive framework for how to equitably address the world’s most salient issues. However, a series of critiques also quickly emerged. While the participants recognized the efforts of those working within the United Nations—and those who advocate from the outside—to ensure that the voices of front-line communities are included in goal setting, we heard again and again the need for a more honest, reflective, and boundary-pushing agenda to elevate the expertise of front-line leaders and organizations..

Early-stage social innovators, particularly individuals who identify as members of the communities they serve, have limited safe outlets for critiquing or driving change inside global institutions that support and resource social change efforts. The findings that follow are collectively sourced, in part to provide a safe outlet for honest perspectives that, at times, may be risky for an individual proximate leader to share. Bold, politically charged calls for transformation can endanger the livelihood of some organizations, but the devastation of historical and present-day oppression and resource extraction—heightened in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and pervasive global racial injustice—renders these calls to action urgent and necessary.

SDG actors need a shared understanding of systemic inequities and their causes

Collective frameworks for social progress face a common challenge: the need for the final product to be approved and used by the parties involved in creating them. The SDGs are no exception; they had to be verified by nation states and adopted by actors with divergent interests. By design, these aspirational goals lack specificity to allow for broad adoption and interpretation. There is freedom to innovate in a flexible model. However, the theory of change for collective impact should be based on a common set of assumptions and cultural context. In the case of the SDGs, the actors designing and implementing solutions that advance the goals lack a cross-sector and multinational consensus on the root causes of systemic inequity. As human rights scholar Dr. Michael McEachrane writes, “there is an elephant in the room of sustainable development. Namely, the very relationship between the developed and developing world of domination and subordination and its historical roots in colonialism.” The goals missed an opportunity to acknowledge the impact of a multitude of efforts that conflict with, rather than complement, one another to advance the goals.

Effective and lasting sustainable development requires a shared and self-reflective understanding of the root causes of systemic inequity. We heard from participants that institutions—particularly the UN, governments and international businesses—must recognize how their behaviors and structures actively contribute to ongoing inequalities across the world. When institutions participate in both the design and collective action of global frameworks like the SDGs, they must begin with the cessation of those activities, changes to those structures, and, in some cases, reparations for past and continuing harms.

Implementing the SDGs requires grassroots, democratic methods

The SDGs identify a robust list of targets, indicators, and goals. However, our Summit participants consistently critiqued the lack of a central, systemic problem-analysis and ideological framework for collective action. This critique from a group of social innovators is telling. Social innovation is an alliance-based model that requires coordination and cooperation across sectors to function. As a field, it is ripe with ideas resisting the limits on what solutions have the potential for systemic impact. But in a global collective action setting, the power dynamics that drive what solutions are resourced and broadly adopted often result in leaving behind the voices of and solutions driven by those who are, in the words of the SDGs, “furthest behind.” Knowing that those closest to the problems have the most effective solutions for systemic change, leaving social innovators out of decision-making is detrimental to the SDGs.

Some participants in our community acknowledged that in comparison to the Millenium Development Goals, democratic participation increased in the drafting of the SDGs. However, this drafting process continued to be largely bureaucratic, leaned toward the approaches favored by the most powerful actors in the UN, and did not consistently elevate front-line communities into agenda-setting or decision-making positions. This signals a failure to ensure that all people’s needs—regardless of influence—are heard and accounted for in the framework.

To address this, there must be a dramatic expansion of participation in the highest levels of national and international policymaking, particularly focused on ensuring front-line communities have a direct say in decisions that affect them. Collective action agendas like the SDGs must be grounded in a grassroots-led analysis of problems’ root causes, use a democratic method for identifying and prioritizing solutions, and increase access to the tools and resources needed to measure how progress is made in communities.

SDG actors can rebuild trust through radical power-sharing

Underpinning many of the criticisms, we heard from participants a deep lack of trust that the UN, governments, and institutions can drive the transformational changes necessary to achieve the goals of the SDGs. Without a shared understanding of systemic inequities, global power dynamics, and the necessity to elevate front-line communities in achieving the SDGs, a lack of trust in the SDGs’ leading entities will remain.

The UN acknowledges this breakdown: in a 2019 SDG progress report, Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “The nexus among inequality, injustice, insecurity and lack of sufficient trust in Governments and institutions can further hinder the necessary conditions for advancing sustainable development.”

The Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, echoes these observations in their 2020 thematic report to the UN High Political Forum, stating, “Urgent transformational actions by States and other development actors must be based on a human rights framework; addressing the root causes of inequality by reversing the global economic order to serve the people and align with environment protection; provide necessary mechanisms to dismantle systemic discrimination and racism; and strengthen the accountability of States, including in ensuring the democratic space for citizens.”

Economic resources need to be transferred to front-line communities

In 2019, the UN released data suggesting that the financing gap to achieve the SDGs was estimated to be USD 2.5–3 trillion per year. Reports indicated that number grew to USD 4 trillion in 2020. This funding is available: trillions of dollars globally earmarked for social change investment are walled off inside governments, philanthropic institutions, and giving or investment vehicles like DAFs and social impact bonds. Along with this conglomeration of funds, historical biases remain in who gets these funds. Those on the front lines of social change often fail to receive grants and investments to implement solutions in their own communities, as institutions continue giving to the same actors year after year and rely on outdated decision-making processes. As a result, social innovators experience challenges of operating in a field where resources are scarce.

Social innovators are experts at establishing successful cross-sector partnerships that enable the growth, diversification and funding of large-scale efforts focused on social and environmental impact that can expand across different markets and contexts. Under resourcing this work is not only illogical and inequitable—it is costly to social impact. While the funding going to social innovation at large is minimal, that gap widens when taking race into account: in research published by Echoing Green earlier this year we found that in 2019 the unrestricted net assets of the Black-led organizations in our study were 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts.

With capital not flowing and systemic bias and racism preventing resources from reaching front-line communities, new approaches to funding truly sustainable development have to be created. Session participants highlighted their frustration with the lack of frameworks to collectively fund or to democratically allocate funds to solutions, and the real community-level implications of prioritizing the desire for economic growth over individuals’ rights and dignity. In order to make a transformational impact and address the root causes of inequality, the emphasis in these discussions was a need for material redistribution of power and wealth to front-line leaders and their communities.

Conclusions

This discussion of the SDGs at Echoing Green’s Summit turned into so much more than a critique or a call to action. It became a passionate and, for some, very personal vision of what a movement for justice in the sustainable development world needs to look like, as well as a broader dissection of the power dynamics in social innovation work. Behind the scenes at events like ours, groups of proximate social innovators grapple with the global consolidation of power, influence, and resources. This consolidation leads to the communities served by Echoing Green Fellows being impacted by harmful policies, action agendas, and economic activity, jeopardizing the chance to advance truly sustainable development and social change. This was broadly apparent in 2020, with systemic inequities in health, education, and access to justice exacerbated and exposed by COVID-19.

Only by discussing these dynamics can the social innovation community better understand them and subvert them. To do this, we must center the leadership of front-line communities and apply their expertise in racial, environmental, social, and economic movements in order to further sustainable development and justice around the globe.

Every actor in the sustainable development space must work together to interrogate histories, critique uses of power, and elevate front-line leaders to achieve the SDGs and their ambitious agenda in an equitable, collective, and inclusive way.

Acknowledgements

This piece was made possible with the contributions of nearly 150 Echoing Green Fellows at our 2019 Summit, with additional support from Agnieszka Bulacik, Ateira Griffin, Blair Glencorse, Ben Smilowitz, and Paul Van De Carr. Analysis and writing by Echoing Green staff including Liza Mueller and Cara Lee. Special thanks to our facilitators Rachel Ishofsky, Jodie Wu, and Colette Pichon Battle.

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