If the world is going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in the 11 years remaining before the 2030 deadline, then our leaders—public- and private-sector alike—must embrace both a sense of urgency and a spirit of creativity about financing them. The current annual shortfall is estimated at US $2.5 trillion. As calculated by the International Monetary Fund, increased taxes in developing countries won’t close that gap, and it’s a number that seems daunting unless it is considered in perspective. The global financial system manages some $300 trillion in assets, so it’s clear that our society has no trouble allocating money to priorities it sees as important. The problem is that financing is not going to the right places.
We need different financing models. And we think that the digital revolution may be the answer.
The work of imagining such models is where the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals comes in. How do we propose to approach that work? Primarily by attracting the best thinking from around the world. Our just-issued Call for Contributions invites everyone to bring ideas to the table. We want as many ideas as possible that align with our field of inquiry: how the digital revolution that is already rapidly transforming the world’s financial systems might be harnessed for the good of the planet and its people.
We welcome case studies, research reports and opinion pieces. They can be original (that is, created specifically in response to this Call for Contributions) or previously published. We also welcome video, PowerPoint, motion graphics and other multimedia. Input from these contributions will be shared with the Secretary-General and other world leaders and will shape a concrete, actionable agenda for achieving the SDGs. Select contributors may also be asked to refine their ideas (if they’re received before May 1) for presentation during September’s General Assembly.
The Task Force is a unique public-private partnership. It is co-chaired by Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Maria Ramos, a highly respected veteran of the commercial banking industry who just retired last month as CEO of Absa Group Limited. Other members include heads of UN agencies, commercial bank CEOs, tech entrepreneurs, central bank governors and thought leaders – all deliberately drawn from diverse sectors, professional experiences and geographies.
To our knowledge, no other entity is looking at this issue from our specific perspective. Much excellent work is already underway on various closely related questions: financing in general for the SDGs, the digital revolution in general, even the meaning and role of money itself in a financial ecosystem that’s rapidly becoming virtual and abstract. Our Task Force is laser-focused on the point of intersection: how the global financial system, which is being radically remade anyway thanks to digitalization, might be remade in a more intentional way to achieve the SDGs.
When we held our inaugural meeting in Davos two months ago, the Task Force grappled with how best to approach the four key questions at the heart of our mandate:
- What is happening now to shape the digitalization of finance to advance the SDGs?
- Where are the high-impact opportunities, both now and in the future?
- What are the barriers, and how can those be overcome?
- Who needs to do what—including within the UN system—to seize these opportunities and remove these barriers?
The Task Force is going to address these questions for all 17 of the SDGs: As a blueprint for a sustainable world, the goals cover issues that affect everyone and are relevant to developed and developing countries alike. We concluded, however, that our work would benefit from a deeper-dive analysis of a subset of SDGs chosen for their cross-cutting potential. So the Task Force is going to focus intensively on five SDG-linked themes.
- How can digital tools help build the momentum around green finance to tackle climate change?
- What can the success and limitations of digital financing for affordable and clean energy – particularly around pay-as-you-go solar and other clean-fuel alternatives – teach us about how to finance water, education and health services?
- What is the impact of digital finance on gender equality? Will digital technology help close the gender financing gap in both developed and emerging regions – or will it widen that gap into a chasm?
- Will the digitalization of finance create more opportunities for decent work and economic growth, or will it lead to greater joblessness and wealth concentration? This theme in particular offers one of the most direct routes to ensuring that the digitalization of finance is understood in the broader context of the changing global economy.
- Finally, how can the digitalization of finance promote faster social and economic inclusion for migrants and refugees? There are an estimated 258 million international migrants, out of which 68.5 million are forcibly displaced persons—a figure even higher than the dislocations following the end of World War II. Digital technologies allow these people to connect both to those left behind and the communities they now call home, but their greater value probably lies in their potential to drive economic growth.
These are ambitious themes because the SDGs on which they are based are themselves ambitious by design. Achieving the SDGs will require many things other than financing, of course – not least of which is a personal commitment on the part of citizens all over the world, and the political will of their leaders. But financing is the sine qua non.
The Task Force is honored to be one of the key tactics in the strategy of financing the Sustainable Development Goals. We look forward to keeping all stakeholders informed as the work progresses—and we urge all interested parties to make their voices heard via the Call for Contributions.
Tillman Bruett is director of the Task Force secretariat. Hosted by the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), the Secretariat consists of a small team based out of New York and Washington, DC.
Image courtesy of Ina Fassbender.