Paloma Duran, executive director of the Sustainable Development Goals Fund. Photo by: SDG-F

There’s a relatively small United Nations agency that has somewhat flown under the radar, but through its programs it’s hoping to model a new way of doing development, one that includes working with the private sector.

The Sustainable Development Goals Fund — created in 2014 by the United Nations Development Program, on behalf of the U.N. system, with an initial contribution from Spain — works to promote sustainable development and poverty reduction through integrated, multistakeholder programs. The successor to the Millennium Development Goals Fund, it works to provide examples of how to work under the new post-2015 development agenda in cross-sector, country-driven projects.

The Fund, which has a budget of about $60 million, recently released a report titled “Business and the United Nations, working together towards the Sustainable Development Goals: A framework for action,” in an effort to hear from the private sector how they might best work and partner with the U.N.

The framework lays out a series of questions that U.N. agencies or businesses can ask to determine how to engage business as a partner in development. It also outlines what the U.N. can do to get more companies engaged in supporting the SDGs; how it can simplify the process of business engagement with U.N. agencies, especially at the country level; and how it can improve knowledge sharing and impact measurement.

Devex sat down with Paloma Duran, executive director of the SDG Fund, to learn more about what it does, where it’s headed and what others can learn from its progress so far.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

What is the vision for the SDG Fund? 

The main vision of the fund is to try to eradicate poverty [by] taking into account the real needs of the population. We don’t want to impose to anybody the goals. We would like to ensure really the national ownership — that each country could be in a position to decide what they really need and we would like to help on that.

We would like to work with the whole system of the U.N., because for us the important thing is not [to] underline our added value but to work on the eradication of poverty ... At the same time, I think we are promoting a different way to do development in the sense that we would like to promote the responsibility of each country, the responsibility of nongovernmental actors and the responsibility of the whole society.

The MDG Fund was the SDG Fund’s predecessor. What has changed since then? How is the SDG Fund tackling the issue of implementation?

We changed a bit the methodology to implement the programs ... We introduced two important things: The first is that we introduced a requirement of matching funds with the countries. Development is not a responsibility only for governments or international institutions, but it is a responsibility for the whole society, meaning we need also the engagement of the local society ...

In order to reinforce this idea we also as a requirement asking the countries to create a national committee where they have the local government, U.N. agencies, [and] also local actors that are contributing through matching funds. They have to make day-to-day decisions, meaning that we are not imposing from here what they have to do; they are going to make the decisions in the field according to their own needs ... We are trying to promote the national ownership of the agenda, which is from my point of view a very important thing.

The second point, which I think is very innovative, is the engagement of the private sector. We very often talk about the private sector, but sometimes we don’t know how to work with them.

These two things, national ownership, the engagement of the private sector, plus the third pillar of our program, which is to work with all the agencies in the field promote this idea of delivering as one, meaning our programs are implemented in the field with at least three agencies … The idea that if you understand poverty is really a multidimensional thing, you need to approach the needs [with] a multidimensional approach.

You recently released a report about the role of business in working with the U.N. What is the goal of this new framework?

The most important thing is that the report really for the first time is trying to get opinions and input from the private sector related to the work they can do with the U.N. During many years, we’ve been explaining for the private sector what they should do. Now we’re getting their opinions ...

The idea of the tool is really to see how can we work in the field, which is from my point of view, the gap if we talk to the private sector. What we want to do is work with them in the implementation of the goals ...

We want them with us as actors, not only as donors. We want them to participate in the design and implementation of programs. It was a different world that existed prior, where they just gave resources and acted as donors and I would really like to have them as actors.

You formed a private sector advisory group in April. What have you learned so far and what lessons might other agencies be able to take away about how to engage the business community?

My experience with our private sector advisory group is they are completely open to [working] with us but we have to find the synergies, the way to work and also to change the language. Because, of course, the language of the private sector is not the language of the U.N. In the end I think the goal is to try to eradicate poverty, so, keeping that in mind, we can talk. Sometimes when you talk to the private sector or other actors it’s very easy to [identify] the challenges, the problems and so on, but the point is how you are going to work together to eradicate poverty in the field.

I think that we have to change here in the system. Civil society has a lot of stereotypes of the private sector and the private sector has to change many stereotypes about the U.N. system. When people say it’s very complicated, I say it depends. Sometimes it’s complicated, but sometimes it’s very easy. It depends on the partner, on the actor, on the program you are trying to promote ... And I think the experience we have really is very positive in the countries where we have the private sector working with us.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.