Sustainable Development

The SDGs: Getting Down to Business

The SDGs: Getting Down to Business

September 19, 2017

With fewer than 5,000 days left to meet the U.N. sustainable development goals, using the business know-how of the private sector to tap into people’s aspirations could be a key to helping development initiatives work better, experts say.

  • Most development efforts have made assumptions about what people need – rather than understanding what they want, researchers say.
  • Organizations can learn from the private-sector techniques, such as product design and branding exercises, to offer people innovative solutions that align with their own self-interest.

Achieving the ambitious United Nations (U.N.) Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) by 2030 will be no easy task. Standing in the way of the 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators are barriers ranging from lack of funding to climate change and conflict. However, experts say adopting more private sector techniques may help with their progress.

Over the past several decades, international development has often been carried out by governments using a centralized, top-down approach, or by international organizations or foreign NGOs that may not have been perfectly attuned to local cultures. As a result, many solutions in areas from health to education and poverty reduction have failed to move the needle in sustainable development.

Part of the reason is that, in many cases, the initiatives focused on what the organizations believed people needed – rather than what they wanted. After all, the thinking goes, what good are intangibles like feelings of prestige that lie higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs if a person has no access to adequate food, water or shelter?

But it is precisely such aspirations that guide people’s behavior, regardless of their economic situation, according to researchers.

Indeed, a survey carried out by economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in Udaipur, India, found that although some people with low-incomes had enough money to increase their food spending by almost one-third, many chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco and festivals instead. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, the world’s poor are more likely to have a cellphone than a toilet, and they increasingly use their handsets to update their Facebook pages as they seek to interact and connect with others.

“Humans are more similar than we are different,” says Shauna Carey, director of communications at, a nonprofit design and innovation organization focused on solving challenges in poverty. “Everyone has challenges and dreams and aspirations, and in order to create really transformative solutions in the private or public sector, we have to understand people and recognize this shared experience that we all have and how our contexts are unique.”

Building brands  to appeal to aspiration

Marie Stopes International has long been one of the leading providers of contraception and family planning services in Kenya – one of six HIV “high-burden” countries in Africa – where the average age at first pregnancy is 16.8 years, and where 40 percent of girls aged 19 become mothers.

As part of its goal to reach the 214 million women in developing countries who want to access contraception but cannot do so – one aspect of the targets around universal access to sexual and reproductive health found in the SDGs – the NGO needed to reach teenage patients in the country. But they simply were not attracted by its traditional clinics.

Through a collaboration last year with, the charity created a lifestyle brand called Future Fab, based around personal potential. By engaging adolescents through the issues they care about, the initiative was able to position sexual health within adolescent girls’ broader future aspirations.

It worked precisely because it appealed to aspirational desires, in the same way that successful product marketing creates brand loyalty.

The results speak for themselves: During a six-month pilot program, Future Fab saw the percentage of client visits by 15–19-year-olds increase from 9.5 percent to 23 percent, attracting new users who may not have used these services otherwise.

And it is not just in health that business-style branding approaches have yielded results.

The U.K.-based Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), for instance, has found that encouraging local farmers to act as their own entrepreneurs rather than dictating from a central headquarters has yielded better results.

“What we have learned is that working with local partners and adapting to the local context works better than a top-down approach,” says Dr. Marin Hirschfeld, Plantwise communications manager at the U.K.-based Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI).

The organization is empowering countries to establish plant clinics with trained “plant doctors” to help farmers lose less of what they grow to plant health problems.  Part of their secret has been using business-style branding techniques. By branding their interventions as paperless, connected professional clinics, held alongside human health surgeries or within produce markets, CABI has gained greater buy-in from the people they are aiming to help.

“As a program, we don’t distinguish between entrepreneurial farmers and the ones that are subsistence farmers, and by treating them all like entrepreneurs, we appeal to their business drive, ultimately helping them improve their incomes,” adds Dr. Hirschfeld.

CABI is also involved in another agricultural initiative, the Africa Soil Health Consortium, which collaborated with Shujaaz, an East Africa-based comic strip written in Sheng – a local Swahili-based slang – to cover topics from the importance of compost to the livelihood of a bean farmer.

The format is marketed to appeal to young people, and the enterprise is creating significant change in countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, where development initiatives centered around farming desperately need to increase the appeal of agriculture to the youth population.


Designing solutions to overcome barriers

Another East African initiative that brings the private sector’s techniques to development goals is mobile marketplace for agriculture 2KUZE, which was developed at the Mastercard Labs for Financial Inclusion and launched earlier this year in partnership with the Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation.

Among other problems, it tackles the barriers faced by women farmers – including household duties, safety issues and long travel times – that prevent them from leaving the farm gate. This means they’re less likely to have up-to-date information on the market and more likely to have to accept whatever deal they’re offered on the day. In some cases, they are not able to sell their produce at the right time, which can lead to spoilage and diminished revenues.

Focusing on the real-life situation of smallholder farmers and connecting with them wherever they are via their mobile feature phone enables them to negotiate quantities, pricing, payment and distribution directly with agents on a central platform, empowering them to run their own businesses.

So what does all this mean? By rethinking development initiatives to include aspiration and desire, both the development and private sectors have the opportunity to engage with the SDGs in a way that goes beyond economics to a broader, more integrated role in the development agenda.

“With the belief that a better future might exist that we haven’t yet seen, there’s an opportunity to take some bold risks in prototyping new solutions,” Carey says.

Eleanor Wragg is a British freelance journalist who writes for News Deeply. Drawing on her diverse experience living and working in countries including Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Puerto Rico, she writes on international development, trade and economics. Her work has been published in global media outlets including the Guardian, the Washington Post, Global Trade Review and the Economic Observer.