One year ago, the UN began implementing reforms meant to make it more effective in delivering on sustainable development. Now, with the start of 2020, the global body has declared this as the “decade of action” to turn the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a living reality for all humanity. But what does this look like, on the ground?
In countries like Kenya, there is widespread belief that the traditional approaches to economic growth are not enough to achieve the SDGs. Fortunately, there are signs that the UN is embracing the disruptive innovation that is needed, across the development landscape, to transform the lives of people around the world. At the African Diaspora Investment Symposium held this month in Silicon Valley, USA we saw the UN, government, and private sector leaders engaged in insightful dialogue on how businesses can partner with the public sector to contribute to Africa’s development.
A team led by ICT Minister Joe Mucheru from the Government of Kenya and Siddharth Chatterjee, the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, spoke at the symposium. The team also met with several Silicon Valley companies and technology startups, and participated in round tables with local thought leaders at academic institutions like Stanford University and UC Berkeley.
Our interaction with government representatives and the UN team in Kenya has demonstrated an encouraging shift, especially in mobilising public-private partnerships that can transform the economy, rather than simply facilitating transactions.
In Kenya there is a noticeable, deliberate push for public-private partnerships around the SDGs as well as national priorities like the “Big Four” Development Agenda. Working hand-in-glove with the Government, the UN Country Team is branding and presenting Kenya’s national goals as an important and transparent opportunity for the business sector. They are a way to direct private investment toward activities that offer both corporate returns and sustainable development wins.
The trend towards leveraging private sector resources for Kenya’s national priorities, including catalysing unique win-win partnerships with companies from across the world, is a welcome trajectory. In an era of declining public sector contributions to the global body, UN experts have been pushing for innovation to bridge the gap in investments needed to achieve the SDGs. This requires a mind-set shift: A focus on enabling companies to incorporate the development goals into their core business practices and strategies. And the UN’s leadership is critical in helping to ensure that corporate interests are focused where they will reduce inequality and generate positive social returns.
A demonstration of this new direction is the recent collaboration agreement between the Government of Kenya, the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) at the University of California, Berkeley, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the United Nations. This initiative will build technology-intensive partnerships that bring new financing, data, and innovations into Kenya’s Big Four Agenda. The collaboration will be implemented through Kenya’s SDG Accelerator Lab — a Government-UN platform for developing, testing, and scaling novel approaches to development.
We are excited about the potential of this initiative to deliver for the citizens of Kenya. For instance, the majority of maternal and newborn deaths are preventable with relatively simple and inexpensive tools, but too often the right life-saving interventions are unavailable where and when they are most needed. Part of the solution may lie in new technologies, like data analytics systems that integrate routine health administrative data with satellite imagery and machine learning.
These systems can, for example, help community health workers to prioritise and triage care and resources to those most at risk. Through partnerships with the companies that build these technologies, Kenya can begin to realise the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution, bringing critical information and insights where they are urgently needed.
Credit must be given to the Kenya government for being at the forefront of technology adoption. Its collaboration with UN in Kenya, a partnership characterised by deep trust and calculated risk-taking, is providing a template for other developing countries seeking to tap technology for sustainable development.
Kenya already stands out as a global frontrunner in the sphere of technological innovation, through such products as the M-Pesa mobile money transfer service, which has transformed lives — especially for those Kenyans who have for years been kept out of conventional banking. Kenya is also home to profound social innovations, including the use of randomised controlled trials to understand the effectiveness of development programmes and products (an innovation merited with the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics).
Of course innovation is not a silver bullet, and achieving the SDGs will require careful thinking about how new technologies is financed, delivered, and regulated — especially if we are to advance the welfare of citizens who feel they are still stuck in neutral. However, if used in a thoughtful manner, technology holds incredible potential to transform governments, development partners, and businesses. Through platforms like the Kenya SDG Accelerator Lab, there are opportunities to harness its full and transformative potential, in ways that leave no one behind.
It is encouraging that the UN and Government are together stewarding the involvement of technology providers, and the broader private sector, in Kenya’s development agenda.
Madon is an Advisor to the Kenya SDG Accelerator Lab and was founding Executive Director of CEGA at UC Berkeley. She is also a member of South Park Commons, a technology community in Silicon Valley. Shah is an Advisor to the Kenya SDG Accelerator Lab and is Co-President, Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs. She is a board member of CEGA at UC Berkeley.