The entire world benefits when we view the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated 169 targets as one inextricably linked set of root causes and outcomes. Otherwise, we run the risk of launching thousands of disjointed and redundant efforts – all in competition for precious resources – and limiting the impact of the outcomes.

Britain, Japan and some NGOs wanted fewer. As Phyllis Pomerantz of Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy warned in an op-ed, “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”. But Amina Mohammed, the UN secretary-general’s special advisor on post-2015 development planning advises against reductions, given the difficulty experienced reducing the suggested number of SDGs to 17.

While it’s futile to try to arrive at a magic number, we think it most productive to approach this complex web of interrelated goals with the following mindset: identify common root causes, avoid redundant initiatives and map to national agendas, exploit data and technology, and grow the financial pie.

Female doctor using tablet computer

Identify common root causes

Understanding the root causes of the “symptoms” that many of the 17 SDGs address is the critical first step to optimizing a plan of action spanning design, partnerships, financing and measurement.

We agree with Liz Ford, deputy editor of the Guardian’s Global Development site, when she calls for a holistic framework to accomplish the SDGs. Referring to the the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the predecessors of the SDGs, she says they “failed to consider the root causes of poverty and overlooked gender inequality as well as the holistic nature of development. The goals made no mention of human rights and did not specifically address economic development.”

We think about defining root causes by asking what it would take to empower people to lead the life they were meant to live – in good health, with decent work and compensation, and the ability to live peacefully and equitably in society. The answer leads to a focused set of priorities: a solid government with just laws for all, access to quality education and quality healthcare, a sustainable environment, and a modern, clean energy infrastructure.

Avoiding redundant initiatives and mapping to national agendas

Clarifying common root causes is essential to avoid siloed and redundant initiatives. Infrastructure is one such issue, as Gordon Brown has noted: “Without action or infrastructure there is no chance of meeting the new Sustainable Development Goals or of ever eradicating poverty. For us to build the world of the future requires a coordinated effort.”

Moreover, it is vital to link SDGs to National Development Plans (NDPs), so that countries take ownership over initiatives that address these root causes within their national agendas. Lant Pritchett, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has called for linkage between country-specific priorities and the SDGs. He noted the disconnect between the Paris Declaration and the MDGs: “In nearly all developing countries, governments were increasingly saying to representatives of development assistance agencies: ‘Do you want to talk about our national agenda or the MDGs?’ If one wants to maintain support for development assistance it has to have the support of the developing countries.”

While country ownership of SDGs is critical, it is also critical to search for economies of scale across countries, regions and the world through knowledge-sharing, cooperation and the scaling up of successful approaches. Caroline Kende-Robb, executive director of the Africa Progress Panel, used Africa’s energy infrastructure as an example to demonstrate this: “Africa has massive potential for renewable and low-carbon energy. With such an endowment, African nations have much to gain from building internationally pioneering low-carbon energy systems. At the same time, the world stands to gain from Africa avoiding the high-carbon pathway that has been followed by today’s richest countries and major economies in other regions.”

Exploiting data and technology

To achieve the SDGs, the developing world needs to follow the example of developed countries by harnessing the power of big data analytics. Technology must be front and centre in order to clarify issues, understand root causes, measure progress and improve performance towards achieving and scaling the goals. For example, stakeholders need access to integrated data (from multiple third-party sets, crowd-sourced data and data collected at the point of service through mobile devices), powerful analytics, and an information infrastructure accessible by all parties to keep constituents connected in real time and overtime. Imagine the power of a rankable set of indices for countries to compare their progress against one set of metrics, rather than 17 separate dashboards with each country’s own set of metrics.

Jeffrey Sachs, author and Columbia University professor, thinks the SDGs will only succeed if governments, businesses and society can harness data for decision-making, and emphasizes the importance of investing in data systems that draw on real-time data. In The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, he writes, “Through more effective use of smart data – collected during service delivery, economic transactions, and remote sensing – the fight against extreme poverty will be bolstered; the global energy system will be made much more efficient and less polluting; and vital services such as health and education will be made far more effective and accessible.” In our work in developing economies, we’ve seen how smart data can strengthen the return on investment for all stakeholders.

Grow the financial pie

Despite the lack of consensus on the ideal number of SDGs, there is consensus that accomplishing the SDGs is a trillion dollar undertaking. But global philanthropic funds along with government development and aid budgets only add up to billions. If we are to make those numbers add up, it will be even more important to avoid redundant efforts. It also requires forging a range of innovative, sustainable funding models, including what we believe to be of paramount importance – engaging the private sector in envisioning new models for business growth through the creation of sustainable products and services that address many of the world’s problems.

The global community is in the early phases of creating innovative funding models through social venture capital, private equity and public-private partnerships. Mo Ibrahim, Celtel founder and chair of the foundation bearing his name, and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, spoke to CNN about the importance of creative funding: “We firmly believe that it is entirely possible to unlock resources by galvanizing new models of funding and collaboration by bringing government and the private sector together.” They point to GAVI, the public-private vaccine alliance, and the Global Innovation Fund alliance as examples. Additionally, Judith Robin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and pioneer of microcredit and microfinance, have written about their model for innovative financing that mobilizes large pools of private capital while minimizing risk. They call it a “social success note”, aligning the interests of commercial investors, social businesses and donors.

The global community is also in the early phases of growing the pie through private sector creation of sustainable business models, products and services that target many of the world’s problems highlighted by the SDGs. Over the past decade, a growing wave of social entrepreneurs, social impact investors and large multinational companies have been working to tackle the world’s most challenging problems. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School explains this concept using the term “creating shared value”, which he defines as coupling company success with social progress. In a Harvard Business Review article, he presents the game-changing potential of creating shared value: “Shared value could drive the next wave of innovation and productivity growth in the global economy as it opens managers’ eyes to immense human needs that must be met, large new markets to be served, and the internal costs of social deficits – as well as the competitive advantages available from addressing them.“ We predict that this sustainable approach will continue to gain traction over the next decade, increasing funding from the private sector.

Value common aspirations

Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank celebrated the SDGs for “promoting international cooperation and the well-being of all”. As we embark on the task ahead, it’s on all of us in the global community to identify the cross-cutting root causes that must be addressed to effectively and efficiently realize the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Authors: Drs. John Sargent and Ernest Darkoh are co-founders of BroadReach. Recipients of the 2015 Social Entrepreneur Award from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

Image: A sign showing distances to cities all over the world is seen outside City Hall in San Bernardino, California January 23, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson