• To give ourselves the best chance at meeting the SDGs, we must engage with those people at whom the goals are targeted.
  • COVID-19 can be a lever for systemic change, if we can bring those at the grassroots level on board.
  • To do so effectively, we will need to draw on the expertise of both social entrepreneurs and scientists.

It is becoming clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has set the world back in its efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In response, a number of new approaches have been suggested to consolidate efforts to channel funding in a more impactful way.

However, these efforts have failed to take into consideration the most important part of this challenge, which is the people for whom these goals are meant.

What is their role in achieving the SDGs? Where is their voice in the conversation? If they are not brought in as equal partners, the world will not be able to achieve the SDGs. The question then becomes – how do you include those at the grassroots level in the conversation? And how do you ensure an equal playing field with no hierarchy or power dynamics?

There is a thin line between asking people to take action, and those people doing it of their own accord. It is the latter that ensures impact and sustainability.

The framework and mindset that prevails today is that of delivering aid. Instead, we need to shift to a mindset of allowing those at the grassroots level to take control of their situation and develop solutions for themselves. This entry point is pivotal in system change, because by addressing this core issue many of the challenges will be resolved and avoided in the first place. Such an approach will build movements from the grassroots upwards, ensuring their sustainability.

What mechanisms are in place to enable this approach?

One new initiative is Catalyst2030. As the name suggests, its goal is to catalyze change at the grassroots level. In chemistry, a catalyst is a molecule that speeds up a particular reaction. Catalyst2030 is a network of social entrepreneurs who have come together to catalyze the achievement of the SDGs by 2030 rather than 2094, the current timeline as suggested by a recent calculation. The group was founded in December 2019, just in time to jump-start the wagon for tackling COVID-19. The social entrepreneurs involved come from many networks including Ashoka, Skoll, Echoing green and the Schwab Foundation.

The result was a consultation among thousands of social entrepreneurs around the world from various sectors that culminated in a report to advise the UN, governments, corporations and funders to change how they do business and to offer a new way forward. This vision is founded on the idea that COVID-19 is the catalyst for change in a world in which suddenly the impossible has become possible. The network offers a unique perspective because they work on the ground to find innovative solutions with the people worst-served by existing systems. Although I am a scientist, I am also a social entrepreneur and was one of the early members of Catalyst2030. Social entrepreneurs are a bit like scientists in the sense that they are curious and dare to ask the difficult questions challenging the status quo. They are persistent, never give up or take no for an answer, and are extremely creative. As Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1937, said: “Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.”

Catalyst2030 calls for systemic change that addresses root causes rather than symptoms. This necessary change must be collaborative and co-created with all stakeholders in the system. It must be holistic and cut across silos, because all the SDGs are interconnected and not one can be solved alone. Combining these efforts will result in a synergy that will always be more than the sum of its parts.

We presented five recommendations to the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Amina Mohammed, on 8 July this year during a virtual fireside chat.

1. World leaders must commit to system change.

2. Social entrepreneurs must have a place at the decision making table.

3. Governments and major institutions should create high-level one-stop points of contact for social entrepreneurs.

4. Governments, companies, philanthropists and others must transform how they finance the ideas of social entrepreneurs.

5. Governments, companies, philanthropists and others must transform how impact is measured and by whom

It has become clear throughout the pandemic that the more advanced countries are suffering equally if not more than the so called less advanced therefore making obsolete the concept of developing and developed while opening a whole new world of opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate. There are many shovel-ready solutions that can be scaled around the world; one example is an award-winning project I founded, called We Love Reading. Its aim is to change mindsets through reading in order to create change-makers. It is a community-based grassroots movement that is based on local activists reading aloud to children to make them fall in love with reading and become life-long learners. The movement started in Jordan and has since spread to 60 countries.

A report by Catalyst2030 offers a good summary: “The world needs to focus on the SDGs now more than ever. To achieve this, we need the sort of social innovation at scale that is possible only through transformational systems change. That will require leaders to step up to an extent they have so far not come close to doing, to scale up the sort of innovative solutions developed by social entrepreneurs with substantial additional resources. “

These bottom-up movements are representations of the chaos theory which states that a butterfly fluttering its wings in China can cause a hurricane in the Atlantic. Ironic, no?