• World leaders should embrace social entrepreneurs as partners in this crisis.
  • Social entrepreneurs work collaboratively with many people worst served by existing systems to find innovative solutions to their needs
  • This bottom-up approach is part of the systems change needed to achieve the SDGs.

As world leaders rush to deploy trillions of dollars in bail-outs and stimulus, and impose once-unthinkable emergency limits on the freedoms of their people, it would be easy to dismiss as irrelevant the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). After all, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a report by the Social Progress Imperative estimated that the world would not achieve the SDGs that 193 countries agreed to meet by 2030 until at least 2073. But anyone serious about the sort of “Great Reset” championed by the World Economic Forum should now be doubling down on these global goals.

Despite the depth and breadth of this current global crisis we are optimistic that the transformational change necessary to achieve the SDGs is still possible – especially if world leaders stop ignoring social entrepreneurs (as they have done in past crises, and so far in this one) and embrace them as partners.

For the past few months we have been working with Catalyst 2030, a new alliance of thousands of social entrepreneurs, to co-create a roadmap for getting the world back on track to achieving the SDGs. Social entrepreneurs bring a unique perspective to tackling the big challenges now facing the world. They are expert practitioners who work collaboratively with many of the people worst served by existing systems to find innovative solutions to their needs. In this crisis, these social entrepreneurs are engaged on the frontlines, battling alongside vulnerable communities to beat the pandemic, cope with its wide-ranging consequences and find a path to a future we can all feel good about. They have earned the trust of many millions of people who have been failed by the world’s existing systems and now have little or no trust in its leaders. Now, more than ever, as they take so many hugely consequential decisions, those leaders need to regain their trust. Listening to the voice and acting on the advice of social entrepreneurs is key to bridging the gap between leaders and communities on the ground.

Catalyst 2030 was launched during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos following a mind-shift among leading social entrepreneurs. They realised they needed to focus collectively on the SDGs and find ways to collaborate more effectively among themselves and with other key stakeholders to achieve the SDGs. It is a meta-network that brings together the world’s leading communities of proven social entrepreneurs, including those of Ashoka, Echoing Green, Skoll Foundation and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Even as it has increased the immediate challenges facing them on the frontlines, COVID-19 has deepened the commitment of these social entrepreneurs to do what is needed to achieve the SDGs. And key to that is systems change.

Many existing systems responsible for delivering the progress we need are simply not up to the task. In some cases, they actively frustrate efforts to move forward. Too often crises are prolonged and opportunities for positive change wasted because leaders use valuable resources to shore up the failed system rather than replace it with something better. We cannot afford to make that mistake again.

Effective systems change cannot be delivered through a plan imposed from above. Social entrepreneurs know from experience that positive systems change is best achieved through collaboration and co-creation, ideally involving all key participants in any system that needs to be transformed, and above all, those whom the system is most intended to benefit. What is needed is human-centred and holistic systems change, a joined-up “silo-busting” approach that cuts across established institutional silos and instead focuses on nurturing effective ecosystems of social innovation. That will require leaders to raise multi-stakeholder partnerships long championed by the World Economic Forum to an entirely new level.

Partnering with social entrepreneurs

While recognising that social entrepreneurs do not have all the answers, dozens of practical ideas have been identified in the past three months by some 15 Catalyst 2030 working groups focused on specific SDG challenges. They range from strategies for helping people whose mental health is suffering during the crisis, job-creation schemes for artisanal workers, new data analytical tools to help predict vulnerability to the virus or safely reopen locked-down economies to ways to use this crisis to crack down on corruption or tax avoidance by multinational companies. And there are ideas for tackling the even bigger crisis looming over us, which is climate change.

Image: Huami: COVID-19 Epidemic Trend Prediction Model

You can read about this work in a new report, “Getting from Crisis to Systems Change: Advice for Leaders in the Time of COVID”. We will continue to fine-tune these in the weeks ahead. These include innovative ways for better collaboration between social entrepreneurs and partner stakeholders such as corporations, philanthropies, the UN, multilateral agencies and donors, and national and local governments.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Innovative social entrepreneurs are addressing the world’s most serious challenges ranging from illiteracy to girls’ education and disaster relief. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 350 late-stage social entrepreneurs. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand innovative models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field of social enterprise by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social entrepreneurs. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

Better ways are urgently needed to fund innovative solutions that make a difference on the ground. We are alarmed by the evidence we have seen so far during this crisis. Despite trillions of dollars being deployed in emergency responses to the pandemic and economic slump, very little of it is reaching social entrepreneurs and the social sector as a whole. Instead, they are facing severe cutbacks just as they are needed more than ever. It is time for a step-change increase in total funding of the social sector if this really is to be a Great Reset.

This crisis is demanding a great deal from leaders. We do not envy them their present responsibilities and choices. But history will judge the decisions they take now. This report makes it clear that this crisis is an opportunity to tackle deep systemic failures and end historic injustices and inequalities. We call on leaders to seize this chance to put the world on track for an inclusive and sustainably prosperous future. For the Great Reset we all desire.