SDGs and Societal Transformations | COVID-19: From Crisis to Systems Change

This article first appeared in the popular online magazine, Convergences’ 2020 Sustainable Solutions Barometer, and is co-authored by Catalyst 2030 members, Jeroo Billimoria and Kristine Pearson.

Crisis is an opportunity to change for the better. As social entrepreneurs, we have the innovative solutions needed to emerge from COVID-19 stronger and on-track to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development agenda. But only with the support of government and partners on the frontlines.

There is no sector, supply chain, or agenda untouched by the COVID-19 global pandemic. As the world grapples with its consequences, we are remined to keep focus on the lived experience of more than 7 billion people across 163 countries.

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an ambitious objective to end poverty, protecting the planet and improving people’s lives, goals are not expected to be met until 2082, according to the 2020 Social Progress Index1. With COVID-19, the index pushes that end-date out another decade to 2092 – 60 years beyond the 2030 target date. This is supported by the World Bank, which forecasts in June 2020 the pandemic will shrink the global economy by 5-8%, potentially pushing a further 100 million people below the international extreme poverty line2.

Driving collaborative systems change

These analyses send a frightening message to social entrepreneurs and their supporters, but they don’t have to. There is reason for optimism and driving positive ideas and recommendations that transform this crisis into an historic turning point.

At Catalyst 2030, we believe in optimism. As a fast-growing global movement of social innovators, we promote collaborative systems change. This approach is an intentional and thoughtful process designed to fundamentally and profoundly transform mindsets, power dynamics, customs, rules and structures for the better.

Launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020, Catalyst 2030 is made up of leading networks of social entrepreneurs including those from Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Foundation. Collectively their reach is close to one billion people.

Together, we published the Getting from Crisis to Systems Change3 report to catalyse collaborative systems change to achieve the SDGs, while navigating the complexities that COVID-19 has introduced.

Commitment, inclusion and busting of silos

This report puts forth four recommendations for the path ahead and include immediate responses to challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as structural changes to how the world’s decision-making and funding institutions work.

We suggest world leaders unreservedly commit to changing systems for the better. Crises are often wasted because resources are mobilised to shore-up existing failed systems. We say that now is the time to design and build new systems that work better and more equitably.

Decision-making tables should be opened to include social entrepreneurs. Their voices and the vulnerable communities they represent must be heard in the rooms where decisions are taken that concern them.

THE PANDEMIC HAS MADE THE TASK OF ACHIEVING THE SDGs MUCH HARDER, BUT IT HAS REINFORCED THE UNDERLYING LOGIC BEHIND CREATING THE GLOBAL GOALS.

Cutting across institutional silos and nurturing effective ecosystems of social innovation is essential. Silos work against synergies and suppress the multiplier effects that action in one area can have on other areas. We suggest silo-busting is key to achieving the SDGs, which, by simultaneously pursuing 17 quite different goals, increase awareness of the interconnectivities and synergies between each of them.

Finally, governments, organisations, philanthropists and others must transform how they finance social entrepreneurs. Our report identifies ways to adapt and align funding models for investing in systems change approaches that are scalable.

First step towards building back better

The pandemic has made the task of achieving the SDGs much harder, but it has reinforced the underlying logic behind creating the Global Goals. Indeed, social determinants of health, such as food insecurity, educational barriers, disability, poverty, unemployment, housing instability, insecure land rights and reduced incomes, are each the subject of different SDGs.

Our shared belief at Catalyst 2030 is that this time really can be different. As an alliance of social entrepreneurs and expert practitioners who work collaboratively with many of the people worst served by existing systems, we believe it must be.

Our report does not have all the answers, but it is the first step to the collaborative systems change needed to achieve the SDGs and start building back better. Then we can begin to meet the needs of the 7 billion people relying on us.

1 2020 Social Progress Index, 10 septembre 2020, https://www.socialprogress.org/assets/downloads/resources/2020/2020-GlobalSPI-Findings.pdf
2 Projected poverty impacts of COVID-19 (coronavirus), 8 juin 2020, https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/brief/projected-poverty-impacts-of-COVID-19
3 Getting from crisis to systems change: Advice for leaders In the time of COVID, 8 juillet 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KxhFiy70wcNKCoQekzNIfOO6tDW9G7XN/view

Jeroo Billimoria & Kristine Pearson
Founding members
Catalyst 2030