A Better World Requires People Who Are Committed to Others

14 May 2018

Paloma Durán, who leads the Sustainable Development Goals Fund, explains why this project-financing mechanism – created in Spain – is going to disappear.

The following is a translation of an interview written by Alejandra Agudo in El País on April 19, 2018.

A world without poverty or inequality, without war and respectful of the environment, in which not one single person suffers from hunger, mothers don’t die in childbirth, and women have the same opportunities in life as men. This is the future that’s to be secured by 2030. The goals are set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Some governments have gotten to work so their countries can meet these goals and NGOs have oriented their work towards their achievement. But more than political and public will, money is needed. 

Although there are numerous mechanisms for financing projects aimed at improving the lives of people in places with insufficient resources, Spain inspired the creation in 2007 of a Fund to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), which became – with what was left unused from the previous budget – the Fund for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were approved by the UN in September 2015. This mode of financing was to be a sort of communal coffer into which countries, businesses and other organizations added money to support projects on the ground that would accelerate progress towards a more just and peaceful world in 2030.  It’s been only three years since it got off the ground, and its closure has been announced for the end of 2018. That’s how Spain wanted it. 

Paloma Durán, director of the Fund, during a visit to Madrid, analyzed what has been achieved and what is to come: UN reform. 

How do you rate the work done by the SDG Fund?

It managed to implement the Agenda within its own philosophy, which is to say by working with all actors. In fact, the Fund worked with member states, with the private sector, with universities and with creative industries. And most importantly, we have five million beneficiaries. I think that’s its biggest success – that we have improved the lives of many people.

You speak of the private sector’s implication in development projects, but this participation has many detractors. What is your opinion?

I think it has a role. The error is to consider the private sector as a donor – which in fact it is – but it must also be an actor. The idea is that companies not limit themselves to having a Social Corporate Responsibility department or donating some of their money to some philanthropic foundation. The SDGs have to be integrated into companies’ core business, which ultimately is profit. NGOs have a different aim, like creative industries and universities. In the end, the idea is that each actor contributes what it is able.

What distinguishes this method of financing and implementing projects from others?

The Fund has served as the first mechanism that has worked with all actors since the SDGs were approved. We used the lessons learned from the previous goals and made some changes to adjust to the new Agenda. One of the changes was to establish matching funds as a requisite for all projects. For every dollar we gave, local actors or international actors on the ground had to put in another dollar. We managed this way to multiply our budget by 2.5. Spain initially donated 30 million dollars – what was unused from the previous Fund – and we put 76 to work. 22 countries contributed with matching funds, 25% of which are not OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) members. I find that an important figure.

But only Spain put money into the coffer for the Fund’s work, along with a bit more than $150,000 between Monaco and the private sector…

That’s right, Spain, a bit from Monaco, and two private-sector companies.

Why didn’t more countries and organizations contribute to maintaining the Fund?

The Fund was created five minutes ago. From September 2015 to April 2018 barely three years have gone by since the Agenda was approved. We’ve tried to do a job of attaining funds that has not been easy because in many cases, UN agencies see that resources have decreased greatly and everyone wants them. It’s true that this period coincided with a process of governmental transition in member states, especially that of the principal donor, which didn’t make things easier either.  In our short life, 80% of our efforts have been directed at moving projects forward, at getting the matching funds and implementing them. This would be the moment to take off.

So if it’s just taking off and has so many positive things going for it, why has it been scheduled for closure at the end of the year?

The Fund is closing because Spain proposed it and the other members of the management committee, where the UNDP (United Nations development Program), the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), the International Trade Center and Unicef are, approved it. I don’t know what to say. You’d have to ask Spain why it is closing it down. I truly believe it would be quite useful to take advantage of all the experience we have or put in place a somewhat more strategic transition period.

Would it have been more difficult for Spain’s proposal to be approved if the Fund had had other major donors?

Undoubtedly. This is not a Spanish Fund, because when it was created in 2014, the country did not have resources, but rather Spain created it to be a multi-donor tool to serve the implementation of the new Agenda. What’s happened is that there has been a change of policy and position in Spain.

What motive did Spain cite for proposing the closure?

In the December management committee Spain said that in the process of UN reform they thought it would be better to have a bigger fund. For that meeting, we had already prepared a new round of projects with the additional funds that were left, which were around 10 million dollars. But Spain proposed that those projects not be considered and that the SDG Fund be closed because another bigger one would be created.

Why not grow the existing one instead of creating a new one?

The explanation I shared is the only one we got, and that they preferred that Spain’s money pass to the new fund.

Have you been asked your advice regarding the creation of the new fund?

It will be created as part of UN reform and will be under the umbrella of UN Doco, which is the entity within the United Nations that coordinates all the agencies. I would have liked to have been more involved. It will kick off on April 23 and after that we’ll have several meetings with them to see how we can share with them the experience of what we’ve done.

What would be the prime example of what you’ve achieved?

The work connecting our food safety projects with the work of the Roca brothers, who are good will ambassadors, has been very positive. Their contribution has been more than photo ops – they’ve really gotten involved. They went with us to train farmers in Kaduna, Nigeria, showing them how to better commercialize tomatoes. Because of this work, in the world of gastronomy, there are a few well-known chefs asking the Roca brothers if they too can contribute to that effort.

There are many other examples.  The Lenca region of Honduras comes to mind, where we helped women commercialize their own products. In Colombia, in the Cauca region, we set in motion a project to create coops – primarily of women – to commercialize coffee. All of our projects are ultimately for the benefit of the people. Like in Cuba. In Santiago, in an area hard-hit by drought, we designed water containers for schools and families. We were there in November and we were able to confirm that 45,000 families that a year ago had only weekly access to water now have it every day.

Are you optimistic about the 2030 Agenda?

I’m very optimistic. The experience of working in the Fund has allowed me to see with my own eyes that many things can be changed. Even though it is very ambitious and requires many economic resources, the Agenda above all needs many people committed to improving the lives of others.

Do you think that developed countries are sufficiently aware that the Agenda also affects them?

I think that work has to be done with rich countries to help them understand development in a comprehensive way. It’s more than just giving money. I think they also have responsibilities within their territories, where many people live in situations of inequality and poverty. In New York, where I live, for example, there are many people who live on the street.