Capital as a Force for Good: Solving the SDG Gap

At the halfway mark to their 2030 deadline, progress on the SDGs has stalled and, in some cases, reversed, putting the goals on a path to failure. Years of underinvestment has seen the total cost of meeting the goals rise to between US$132-175 trillion, or up to nearly 40% of the world’s gross liquid assets. Despite these challenges however, the world can meet, or even exceed the 2030 target for the goals. The 2023 Capital as a Force for Good Report issued by the Force for Good Initiative explores in detail six solution areas and their potential contributions to the SDGs, finding that were they applied to their maximum, the targets underlying the goals could be significantly exceeded by the 2030 deadline.

Progressing the goals in practice however will require the world to identify existing initiatives for each of the six solution areas that can be scaled globally. The report highlights 15 distinct initiatives across finance, policy, public sector engagement and technology, which given sufficient scaling and global deployment have the potential to collectively solve for c.70% of the SDGs. This month’s Sign of the Times provides an executive summary drawn from the report, focusing on its key messages and conclusions. The full version of the Capital as a Force for Good Report can be found here.

 

The Transition of World Systems is Creating Multiple Crises

The past four years have been among the most disruptive in living memory, having delivered a global pandemic, the worst recession since World War II, the breakdown of global supply chains, record levels of inflation around the world sparking an unprecedented cost of living crisis, an economic malaise that has impoverished not just poor countries but many in rich countries too, an ongoing civil struggle over America’s last democratic elections, a war in Europe that tests Western security and political alliances, as well as triggering an energy supply crisis with global repercussions, and a series of natural disasters. To this are added the ongoing erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization across the world, increasing geo-economic confrontation, large scale environmental degradation and the resulting large scale involuntary migration both within and across countries.

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The human cost, both financial and social, of these developments has been staggering, leading to millions of deaths, a destruction of livelihoods, rising poverty and worsening health outcomes, rising mistrust and civil strife, and trillions of dollars of economic losses. Slow and steady progress on key development indicators, particularly eradicating poverty and hunger, and improving health and education, have been reversed.

These disruptions risk throwing the world into turmoil at a time when coordination is most needed to address global challenges. The term ‘polycrisis’ has been used to describe these overlapping crises which together are greater than the sum of their parts and collectively threaten the world’s ability to cope with them. While these crises may seem like discrete and event driven issues but are interrelated and part of a world system that is in transition away from the current model, which fuelled the Industrial Revolution and created the modern world.

There are three major longer-term shifts that coincide and are related to the transition with interrelated socio-economic and political implications for the world system: politically with the emergence of a multipolar global order, technologically with the Digital Revolution, and socio-economically and environmentally with the global sustainability transition. Each of these three long term transitions will likely take decades to fully play out, and while the end-states of each one can be envisaged, the path the world will take to these states cannot, leaving the world in flux.

 

Progress on Levelling up the World Has Stalled or Reversed

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015 by all 193 UN member states are a shared blueprint to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet, underwriting the human security needed globally as a baseline for continued sustainable and equitable growth. By providing a comprehensive blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, the goals set out a shared transformational vision to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.

At the mid-point toward the goals’ 2030 target date, however, the outlook for the achievement is bleak. Despite initial slow but steady improvements across several goals, particularly related to poverty and health, further progress has stalled since the outbreak of the pandemic, with interrelated economic, political and security crises having followed. These include a global economic slowdown, increasing geopolitical divisions inhibiting the coordination on global scale development challenges, the populist politicization of sustainable development across major advanced economies, a persistent lack of (profitable) private sector investment opportunities in regions with the most significant development need, and the increasing number of people rising to Western living standards and their unsustainable rates of resource consumption, among others.

These issues are real and remain unsolved, leading to the clock counting down inexorably towards 2030. The UN’s own preliminary assessment is that none of the 17 SDG is currently on track, as highlighted in the figure below.

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Further, the analysis shows that of roughly 140 /169 underlying targets for which data is available show only about 12% are on track. In addition, over half are moderately or severely off track, and nearly one third have either seen no movement or regressed below 2015 levels.

In many cases, the gaps are vast. Based on current trajectories, over half a billion people will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030, and almost 400 million children or young people will either be out of school entirely or leave it unable to read and write, against SDG targets of zero for each of these. Closing the gender gap in line with the SDGs is projected to take 286 years at current rates of progress, rather than the seven years remaining to 2030.

 

The Cost of Meeting the Goals Continues to Rise

The cumulative impact of this challenges on the SDG funding need is significant. While the SDGs are, of course, about more than money, at their core, the SDGs require investment capital, albeit for both non-financial and financial returns. The world spent an estimated US$4-5 trillion on the SDGs last year, but given the macro-economic, environmental and security disruptions facing the world, this spending has not made a dent on the SDGs.

With the total cost of the goals estimated to be US$175 trillion, we are running to stand still, but with one year less to achieve the goals. The cumulative funding gap has also remained constant against last year, at US$103-137 trillion through 20301.

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As a result of chronic underfunding, inflation and reduced FDI and ODA, the annual SDG funding gap has ballooned since 2021, increasing c.55-70% over just two years, from US$8.4-10.1 trillion to currently US$12.8 -17.0 trillion. The total funding gap through 2030, at US$103-137 trillion, represents an almost insurmountable amount of money for the world to mobilize, particularly given the incremental trillions of dollars being spent globally on security, resilience, and recovery, given the disruptions that have shaken the world.

In essence, the cost of levelling up the world, and avoiding the dire consequences of failure, have been rising at a rate that may well mean that it is too late to succeed without radical measures and a different approach.

 

All the Money in the World is Not Available

The cost of meeting the SDGs, is rising faster than the world’s current ability to generate wealth. Funding the SDGs will require accessing c.40% of the US$440 trillion in global financial wealth (gross liquid assets). On an annual basis, the funding need for the SDGs represents c.20% of the global economic output (GDP) of US$100 trillion. While these amounts are staggering, they demonstrate that the SDGs remain fundable, in principle. But while the world’s wealth may today be more concentrated than at almost any point in human history, it is still spread across a disparate set of stakeholders and countless individual owners with a wide range of priorities, goals, and existing obligations.

  • 57% of the world’s gross liquid capital is owned by individuals (US$254 trillion), and their consumption drives nearly 60% of the total value of global GDP, although this consumption is (unevenly) spread across the global population.

  • 41% of global financial wealth is owned by governments (US$186 trillion), nominally spread across 195 countries, but highly concentrated in advanced industrialized countries.

  • 88% of the world’s gross liquid assets (US$315 trillion) are administered by the finance industry, across its roles as asset owners, asset gatherers and allocators and as direct investors, however it does not own this money2.

  • US$196 trillion in total assets are directly controlled by corporations (other than financial ones), making liquid and illiquid investments based on their business needs.

  • This capital is managed by and flows through a few major financial hubs across the world, New York, London, and Tokyo being the most significant currently, but this is expected to change with New York being joined by China exercising more control over its flows and India rising and managing its own flows.

  • The terms of the world’s US$32 trillion of trade is decided by three trading power blocs today, the US, the EU, and China, over time adding India to the group.

Mobilizing capital for the SDGs also implies globally unprecedented cross border flows, as the countries and regions with the largest development gaps and funding needs are precisely those with the least amount of capital resources. Africa represents 25% of the global SDG gap yet owns only 1% of the world’s household wealth. India is marginally better placed, with 17% of the global SDG gap and 3% of wealth, while Latin America and Asia-Pacific also have shortfalls. Most global assets are not only held and but also invested in rich nations. Global foreign direct investment in 2022 represented less than 5% of total investment activity, at US$1.3 trillion,3 and only 3% and 4% of this was invested in Africa and India, respectively.

Mobilizing the world’s stock of capital for the SDGs also requires a significant reallocation of funds across asset classes. One third of the world’s liquid wealth of US$440 trillion is currently held in asset classes not, or only marginally, suited to advancing the SDGs. The US$100 trillion in public equities also have only a limited impact on sustainable development, given that more than 99% of them are held in existing stock, rather than providing funding directly to companies. Further, a significant portion of the world’s US$300 trillion of debt would need to be re-issued to deliver SDG impact, having funded governments and corporations with no or only minimal presences in regions where SDG investment is required.

Stepping back, funding the SDGs would require the world to reallocate existing investments, mobilize new capital and reprioritize spending across geographies, and asset classes, which cannot happen without these stakeholders agreeing to do so, an agreement for which global stakeholders are not currently aligned.

 

Solutions Unleashed by Government and Private Enterprise Can Close the Gap to the SDGs

For all the challenges the world is currently facing in achieving the goals, the SDGs were fundamentally designed to be achieved. Leaving aside for a moment the goal’s escalating price tag, achieving the goals requires the public and private sector to work together, leveraging only a handful of building blocks to solve for the 169 targets underlying the SDGs.

Despite the complexity of the SDGs being well understood, there is a temptation to reduce the problem of meeting them to being a purely financial one, where all that is required to meet the goals is the mobilization of additional capital. And with most of the world’s capital allocated or intermediated by private sector financial institutions, there has been a corresponding temptation to turn to the finance industry for solutions, as witnessed by the repeated calls on the global financial sector to mobilize more funding as the answer to meeting the goals. However, financial institutions administer the vast majority of these funds to a clear mandate set by clients or the law, and the power to shift capital may therefore lie with other stakeholders such as owners and regulators.

A detailed examination of the 169 targets underlying the goals gives rise to six distinct solution areas that need to be leveraged for the targets to be met, with each target addressed by a different mix of these solution areas. The solution areas compromise policy, technology, public sector activities, infrastructure, private industry, and financial services. Analysing each SDG target, its underlying indicator(s), and the research and where possible, some of the experts, on the specific solutions to determine their potential contributions to a given goal, has resulted in a target-by-target estimate, with percentage contributions from each solution area to breakdown how the target could be achieved.

The results from this work are as follows:

  1. Policy provides solutions for 27% (Base) to 36% (Stretch Case) of the goals.

  2. Public Sector Activities can solve nearly 34% (Base) to 47% (Stretch Case) of the goals.

  3. Technology solves for 19% (Base) to 37% (Stretch Case) of the goals.

  4. Infrastructure solves for 9% (Base) to 14% (Stretch Case) of the goals.

  5. Private Industry solves for 11% (Base) to 18% (Stretch Case) of the goals.

  6. Financial Services directly solves for 2% (Base) to 4% (Stretch Case) of the goals, while the finance industry indirectly funds for up to 73% of the solutions for the goals in the stretch case.

Both policy and public sector activities are executed solely by governments, while technology, financial services, and infrastructure (along with private industry solutions) are predominantly led by the private sector. The degree to which each goal depends on a given solution area varies of course, as do the roles of stakeholders involved in each solution4.

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The analysis indicates that each solution area has a contribution to make to the SDGs and together the Base Case outcome from these solutions is to essentially deliver the SDGs, using the world’s current economic and financing practices. When deployed together in a coordinated fashion however, these solution areas can not only essentially achieve, but potentially significantly exceed the goals, delivering a secure, sustainable, and superior future for the world by 2030.

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This analysis also shows that if each solution area were to deliver to its maximum, the world can exceed the targets set by the SDGs by more than 50%, creating a better, more sustainable, and secure world than originally targeted for by 2030. However, unlocking the maximum potential of each solution area as this Stretch Case implies, will require changing current regulatory policy, technology, and financing practices in a way that if well implemented may well be transformative for the world, leveraging best practices from around the world at scale.

While governments account for the majority of the goals, the private sector has a critical role to play, contributing at least 40% of the solutions for the SDGs in the Base Case, and half in the Stretch Case. In practice, meeting the SDGs is a complex challenge requiring combinations of solutions to be applied to each goal, and this requires complex coordination between various stakeholders, in addition to the funding need.

And so, while the analysis above demonstrate that the world has the capabilities and resources to meet the goals, however their achievement is a function of political will and global alignment that the world today continues to lack.

 

Scalable, Leverageable Initiatives Identified Solve c.70% of the Goals

In the absence of a globally coordinated action plan for the goals, the success of the SDGs will depend on the world identifying, scaling, and executing viable initiatives globally, at speed. Luckily, many such initiatives exist and have been developed and implemented by innovative and entrepreneurial organizations, be they financial institutions, global corporates, NGOs, international organizations, or national governments. The existence of such solutions makes the challenge for the world to meet the goals a potentially feasible one, focused on scaling and rolling out existing solutions globally.

There are countless initiatives around the world that meet the criteria of making a high impact either directly on an SDG or indirectly via addressing an issue that solves for multiple SDGs (such as financial inclusion), and these are potential candidates for the world to scale in pursuit of the SDGs. The 2023 Capital as a Force for Good report highlights 15 such initiatives to illustrate the breadth of solutions available to the world with the potential for global scaling and impact.

Taken collectively, these initiatives can amount to a bottom-up blueprint for the SDGs, with the potential to achieve approximately 70% of the SDGs if scaled globally and fully funded.

Figure: Selected Global Sustainable Development Initiatives

Type Description Organization Key SDGs Impacted5

Policy

Framework for the Green Transition. The European Green Deal is an integrated blueprint of legislation, regulation, incentives and enabling policies to transform Europe’s economy and societies for sustainability Policy Framework for the Green Transition. The European Green Deal is an integrated blueprint of legislation, regulation, incentives and enabling policies to transform Europe’s economy and societies for sustainability

European Union

sdg1

Renewables Energy Investment Incentives. The US Inflation Reduction Act is a landmark legislation for climate change, using incentives to unlock private investment and to make key clean technologies profitable, at scale

United States of America

sdg2

National Hydrogen Strategy. Ambitious industrial strategy adopted by Japan to develop a leading global hydrogen industry, to drive national decarbonization, transition to a stable energy supply and deliver economic growth.

Government of Japan

sdg3

Disclosure Standards. The IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standards developed by the ISSB provide a global baseline of sustainability disclosures for the capital markets, and set the stage for pricing and accounting for externalities

International Sustainability Standard Board

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Capital Mobilization

Environmental Impact Bonds. The World Bank’s Rhino Bond is the world’s first environmental impact bond represents a breakthrough in conservation finance, partnering donors with capital market investors to share risk and drive conservation outcomes.

Citigroup, The World Bank

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Disaster Resilience Solutions. Innovative risk transfer mechanism increasing the financial capacity of international disaster response efforts and building long term resilience

Lloyd’s

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Debt for Nature Swaps. Gabon’s Blue Bond provides an innovative structure for refinancing developing country sovereign debt, with the potential to reduce indebtedness and the cost of debt, using savings to fund public spending on conservation activities.

DFC, Bank of America

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Technology

The India Stack. A unique digital infrastructure for the delivery of mass financial inclusion for all, serving as a platform for broader social inclusion, a free to individual payment systems enabling peer-to-peer transaction, other digital services to people and businesses.

Government of India

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Digital and Telehealth. World’s largest telehealth and virtual medicine platform including primary care, mental health, and chronic condition management, as well as mobile health.

Teladoc Health

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E-Learning Platforms. National digital learning platforms to overcome barriers to education and to improve overall learning outcomes.

National governments

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Financial Services

Inclusion Banking. Major US banks have launched scaled initiatives to driven inclusion by focusing on underserved individuals, communities and MSMEs.

US Banking Leaders

sdg11

Microfinance. Mobile and digital technologies are increasing microfinance’s potential to financially include the three billion people and 200 million (MSMEs) that still lack access to basic savings and credit services.

Whole Industry

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Private Sector Initiative

Plastic Waste Resolution. Corporate initiative to prevent, reduce and remove 50 million metric tons of plastic waste leveraging capital markets, partnering with clients and research institutes, and organizational changes.

Morgan Stanley

sdg13

Affordable Medicine. World’s largest vaccine producer focused on delivering quality vaccines at affordable prices for the world, critical for our continued efforts to reduce global mortality and improve global health outcomes.

Serum Institute of India

sdg14

NGOs

Scaled Development NGOs. Major non-profit organizations addressing extreme poverty, using evidence-based, cost-effective, scalable interventions for basic challenges without commercial funding pathways in least developed countries.

Gates Foundation, BRAC, Care International

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The distinguishing feature of each highlighted initiative is its potential for scaling and therefore its potential to delivery significant impact against the SDGs. Assuming that each initiative was adopted globally as the benchmark for its respective objective, these 15 programs could make significant contributions to meeting the SDGs, individually contributing between 1% for a point solution to up to 20% for systemic solutions against the 2030 SDG targets.

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Taken together, the potential impact of all 15 initiatives on the SDGs is transformational. If all 15 initiatives were scaled, fully funded, and deployed globally, they could cumulatively drive progress against 16 of the 17 goals, leveraging all six solutions (policy, public activities, private industry, technology, infrastructure, and financial services) to solve for c.70% of the SDGs in total, (net of any overlap between the initiatives). The table below shows the cumulative potential impact on the goals.

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Of course, for these 15 initiatives to actually address 70% of the SDGs they would need to be deployable globally, in different countries which are at different stages of development, with varying execution resources and capabilities, and requiring varying levels of local adaptation and international support.

In practice therefore, meeting the SDGs by 2030 will require the world to adopt the right package of initiatives, meaning that ideally, global stakeholders would work together to identify, assess, prioritize, fund, the highest potential project from across the world, and working with local partners on deployment. Capital follows solutions that meet the criteria for capital to flow, and so this shift of focusing on solutions not capital is a critical one.

 

Conclusion

The 2023 Capital as Force for Good Report shows that the world is not on track to meet the 2030 targets for the SDGs, but that there are ways to close and in places even materially exceed the SDG goals. Delivery requires focusing on the right solutions and re-aligning capital and human effort. There is sufficient capital, and further capital is accumulating faster than global population growth.

The world is already on the brink of a new era and a new civilization. However, making such a future a reality will require bold investments across information technology, energy, material sciences, engineering, and life sciences, to transform and create whole new industries. an important message of the report is that retrenchment would accelerate many of the negative trends that are gathering force across the world and so measured progress is the way forward.

Inevitably, the world is split between those that see and vote for the future and those that vote for the past, and until the balance tips substantially in favour of progress, the transition will be dangerous and exact a steep price from people and planet. We support the Force for Good initiative for an inclusive transition that links the world together with the transfer of ideas, solutions, and capital to create a sustainable, secure, and superior future for all.

Sign of the Times Leader is a summary of the conclusions of the Capital as a Force for Good report issued in September 2023. This article has been adapted and reprinted with the permission of the Force for Good Initiative.

 

Note on SDG Funding Gap: The increase in the SDG funding gap and total need over the last year is primarily due to the following factors:

  1. High Inflation. Inflation globally increased to 8.7% in 2022 (vs. 4.7% in 2021), with c.7% inflation in advanced economies and c.10% inflation across emerging markets, on average , driven by the war in Ukraine, an increase in food and energy prices, and continued supply chain bottlenecks. Inflation erodes the value of increases in SDG funding and compounds the overall requirement across all categories and increased the annual SDG funding gap by US$1.0-1.4 trillion in 2022.

  2. Chronic Underfunding. Total funding for the SDGs is estimated to have increased by only 5.4-5.9% to US$3.8-4.9 trillion in 2022, given the sharp slowdown in GDP growth globally in 2022 vs. 2021 when the world was recovering from the pandemic-induced lockdowns7. This means that c.US$11-15 trillion of the total SDG funding need in 2022 was not funded, which compounds on top of the 2021 underfunding, and gets further compounded by inflation. With each year of severe underfunding for the SDGs, the overall funding gap for the remaining years is quickly compounding to an unachievable quantum.

  3. Foreign Investment and Aid to Developing Countries Still Well Below Pre-Pandemic Levels. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries declined by c.US$0.7 trillion in 2020 due to the pandemic as countries turned their resources inward8. While there was a partial recovery in 2021 with US$0.2 trillion increase in FDI and ODA to developing countries, momentum reversed in 2022 with FDI and ODA to developing countries increasing by only US$63 billion or 6% vs. 20219. As a result, after accounting for inflation, overall FDI and ODA to developing countries remains c.US$0.6 trillion below pre-pandemic (2019) levels.

 

The Leader: Endnotes

  1. This gap is based on bottom-up estimates for spending requirements for the goals and does not factor in potential synergies that can be achieved by concurrently addressing interrelated goals.

  2. Source 2023 Capital as a Force for Good Report

  3. Source: UNCTAD's World Investment Report 2023

  4. Source: Please see the Report Objectives, Research Process and Methodologies of the 2023 Capital as a Force for Good report for further details

  5. Source: 2023 Capital as a Force for Good Report

  6. Source: IMF World Economic Outlook Database, April 2023

  7. Nominal GDP growth in emerging markets slowed from 17% in 2021 to 7.4% in 2022, while developed economies slowed from 11% in 2021 to 1.7% in 2022, Source: IMF World Economic Outlook Database, April 2023

  8. Source: OECD, Global Outlook on Financing for Sustainable Development 2021

  9. Sources: FDI based on UNCTAD World Investment Report; ODA based on OECD estimates