Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 2001. With the Taliban back in power for the second time, but facing an entirely different country since its last occupation of Kabul in the 1990s, Afghanistan is back to square one - and even worse. More than ever, Afghanistan requires imaginative new approaches and not simply humanitarian response by the International community to help resolve a war that has dragged on for more than 40 years. (Photo: UNHCR)

On the face of it, what International Switzerland has to offer is exceptional in the way of knowledge, expertise and diplomacy, particularly with regard to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But unless more appropriate and, above all, collaborative action is taken to move beyond the usual rhetoric, this largely self-satisfied focal point of global institutions will simply plod along as before. It will fail to attract the sort of economic and social opportunity that a truly “global hub” for innovation can inspire, whether in issues of climate, health or sustainable development. 

First, there are the more obvious institutions from the International Red Cross (ICRC/IFRC) and World Health Organization (WHO) to the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO). All are linked in one way or another to the SDGs. Even with cities such as Bonn, Copenhagen and Bangkok anxious to add to their growing repertoire of international organizations, and willing to offer the financial incentives to convince them to move, it seems unlikely that such globally renowned fixtures will pick up sticks to abandon the credibility of a neutral Switzerland.

The same goes for organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne and International Football Federation Association (FIFA) in Zurich, not to mention all those other sports headquarters elsewhere in Switzerland. Sports have simply become too political. So even if we are looking at a possible boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics because of China’s blatant human rights abuses of the Uyghurs and against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy advocates, or continued criticism of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup fiasco given its mistreatment of foreign labourers, it helps to have such institutions based in a non-partisan Switzerland, even if both remain mired in corruption scandals.

A completely new systems ‘rethink’     

Yet international Switzerland, which may prove a more appropriate term than the current and more limited “international Geneva”, cannot rest on its laurels. It needs to stop promoting the same usual suspects together with increasingly unrealistic SDG approaches in order to prove what makes it so special. Switzerland needs to become a truly innovative global hub combining both the public and private sectors capable of tackling problems with new systems solutions on all fronts. It also needs to leverage more effectively the Swiss development resources and networks that already exist within the “International Switzerland” and Geneva communities.

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Above all, however, this innovative ‘re-think’ must incorporate new entrepreneurial opportunities coupled with better-defined technological and systems financing processes. It must seek to apply the same new strategies that have already revolutionized every other sector of the economy, and indeed politics, by quite simply trumping traditional hierarchical structures with more efficient network approaches. Equally crucial, it must invest in local and international news gathering – and not simply parochial Swiss press – as part of a completely new ‘rethink’ on how independent journalism can be funded if people worldwide are to better understand what the SDGs are about. (See article in Global Insights)

As observers point out, only in this manner can the multilateral world continue to operate with both Switzerland and Geneva still at its core. (See Global Insights article on International Switzerland’s missed opportunities)

Melting polar ice. If International Geneva, or more pertinently International Switzerland, wishes to remain a global focal point for solutions to the SDGs, particularly climate warming, then it will need to do far more than proceed as usual. It needs to become engaged with a complete systems overhaul. (Photo: UN)

A distinct gap in what exists – and what needs to be done

What is lacking – as is becoming increasingly apparent to those seeking more equitable and effective remedies – is the failure to have the SDG discussion focus more realistically on collaborative approaches with new ideas. These need to engage all international institutions, such as UNHCR, CERN, ILO, IUCN, EPFL or GESDA, but also the private sector, particularly local and international entrepreneurs from across the globe working on solutions-oriented initiatives. Everyone has something to offer.

As this new thinking further suggests, it is the only way that the international community will prove capable of drawing on the large-scale financial capital urgently needed to fund the 17 SDGs, most of which are now so far behind on their purported goals that they can no longer be taken seriously. There is little evidence that progress has actually been achieved since 2015 when world leaders first announced the SDGs with the aim of creating a better, fairer world by 2030 as well as ending poverty, addressing climate change and ending inequality.

According to analysts, the international community is nowhere near to attaining this. If one conservatively adds up all the capital reportedly already spent on the SDGs (eg. up to $175 billion per year by the Bretton Woods institutions and another estimated $150 billion per year dedicated to international development by various foundations plus the claimed one trillion dollars through impact investment (with COVID international investment in the developing world is thought to have plunged by up to 60 per cent, so even these figures may sound optimistic), resulting in an estimated aggregate of 3.5 trillion dollars since 2015, we still have far too go. (See William Dowell article in Global Insights on saving the SDGs – and the world).

As the UN Convention on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) maintains, we are in fact 20 per cent below where the SDGs stood nearly six years ago. This is also a trend that pre-dates COVID. Based on the Social Progress Imperative, which has been tracking the SDGs ever since, current goals may not be fulfilled until 2093. As some wonder, will the SDGs have to be renamed the Centennial Goals?

The UN’s António Guterres (right) meets with Swiss president Guy Parmelin in 2021. As host to so many international institutions with worldwide impact, Switzerland, which provided $3.6 billion in development aid in 2020, should consider also supporting independent local and international reporting worldwide as one of the most effective ways for informing global audiences about the SDGs. One suggestion is the creation of a Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism based in Geneva. (Photo: UN)

International Switzerland: a global hub in words only?

So is the International Switzerland community, which likes to portray itself as the world’s leading SDG hub, in danger of losing its momentum? Some think, yes. “Post COP[26] and COVID it is clear that there has never been a greater need for the solutions that social entrepreneurs and civil society can offer to be brought to the table married to effective international organizations capable of aggregating social issues,” explained Arthur Wood, a founder-partner of Equity4Humanity (E4H). “We’re not talking about the zero-sum silos of today, but rather an opportunity for all sectors of global society.” (See Arthur Wood article in Global Insights magazine)

This is primarily because most institutions, such as WIPO, WHO, UNICEF and IOM, are not ensuring that the data they have to offer is being made available to all concerned in the public interest. Far too much is being held back in silos, or not being developed jointly or openly. Unless this is done sooner rather than later, with perhaps Switzerland taking the lead, this exceptional global SDG knowledge hub will be exploited – as is already happening – for their own purposes by government and private interests, such as Meta Platforms Inc. (former Facebook), Palantir or financial sectors seeking to operate for themselves and without the necessary transparency.

One of the major stumbling blocks to closer collaboration is that organizations often silo themselves for good reason.  The rich states portion up organizations to install their own candidates (e.g. IMF and World Bank, even the UN in Geneva). Hardly an encouragement to cooperation. The Gates Foundation’s reputation in Geneva indicates why organizations don’t want to bring business on board with power to impose its own agenda and demands for close monitoring above delivering services. Even civil society organizations tend to promote special interests rather than global standards. Think Greenpeace or WWF.  And these are the good guys. These new organizations offer a beacon of hope. But don’t expect progress to be easy.

The UN’s Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) seeks to keep tabs on key planetary concerns such as human trafficking and environmental crimes. Its data is crucial for other organizations worldwide dealing with similar issues. (Photo: UNICRI)

Globally, much of this data together with support technology already exists in Geneva, primarily through CERN’s IDE4 Foundation, which has been beta-tested by academics, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), UN Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), European Union, Britain’s National Health Service and others. This means that international Switzerland can visualize, track and dynamically interrogate that data across sectors and silos, even predictably. Furthermore, as Wood adds, “the positive news is that for the most part of this architecture is built.” For the moment, however, international Switzerland community still must prove itself as the centre of the global multi-lateral community.

Part of E4H’s “Building Bridges” approach is to pull the various institutions out of their current silos into a data-driven systems planning frame. As Prof Peter Head of Resilience Brokers in London notes: “That will provide them with a systems planning process that will enable data to be turned into wisdom for transformational and efficient investments in infrastructure and social entrepreneurship. The frame will support people in building collaborative intelligence in their local stakeholder community.”

Global Insights media partner, Cartooning for Peace – a non-profit foundation based in Geneva – works with over 100 world-renowned cartoonists to help draw attention to global issues, such as climate change, that international Switzerland seeks to represent. (Cartoon by Cartooning for Peace member: Marco De Angelis (Italie / Italy)

The need to recognize the economic value of social entrepreneurs and innovation

For Wood, it is imperative that all actors, not only donors but also the commercial and banking sectors, recognize the economic value of social entrepreneurs and social innovation. This is particularly important given the structural inefficiency of the current system and the fact that the economic value created by this sector has already been calculated by McKinsey, Accenture World Bank and others, but mostly ignored.

“When people ask how quickly can we get back to work in the time of COVID or how quickly sequenced interventions can help save the global economy from the economic catastrophe produced by climate, can one still even describe our sector as ‘not-for-profit’?” he added.

“If we continue to ignore this reality, then we will remain undercapitalized entities subcontracted to the corporate and banking agendas.”   

Catalyst 2030: a global movement of social entrepreneurs and social innovators from all sectors who share the common goal of creating innovative, people-centric approaches to attain the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

As some, such as Catalyst 2030 (the new grouping of major social entrepreneurial organizations collaborating on the SDGs, such as Skoll, Schwab and Ashoka) are pointing out, there urgently needs to be a systems change in the manner with which knowledge silos by individual social entrepreneurial ventures operate. More pertinently, this must include far greater collaboration if the SDGs are to be achieved. For this to happen, however, there must be a complete reframing of the way incentives are handled with a focus on social entrepreneurs, societies and other stakeholders, including banks and private corporations, working together more closely.

For Trabian Shorters, formerly of Ashoka and now a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, one should not seek to be an “ant on the hill” but rather a “builder of the hill”. Or as Marc Owens, for ten years the American philanthropic regulator, put it: “We must move from essentially a pre-capitalist form of philanthropy today, being the recipients of the crumbs thrown from the King’s table, to being recognized as equal partners in societies endeavours to solve the societal challenges we all face – including climate.”

What Equity4Humanity, a collaborative Swiss-based initiative currently being set up and hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) and leveraged by new CERN technology together with a new global legal framework, is proposing is a “Building Bridges” approach. This could significantly help bring together many of the institutions currently engaged with the “International Geneva” community.

United Nations operations in the field, such as here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are all linked in one way or another with the SDGs. (Photo: UN)

Moving beyond traditional, self-centred economics

More specifically, this includes pooling ideas that have already emerged to create a replicable framework combining collaborative action and scale in order to draw the major financial capital that is needed. At the same time, this should supply the banking and commercial communities with what they need to deploy financial tools beyond the current paradigm, notably: aggregation, risk management cost efficiency and scale.

“What is vital,” maintains Ed Vermeulen (an E4H co-founder and former CEO of a major logistics entity) “is to demonstrate that all individual stakeholders with initiatives or approaches to contribute will also benefit together with their communities from the systems collaboration facilitated by the E4H.”

Both Vermeulen and Wood further note that social entrepreneurs will retain sweat equity in the upscaling of their mission in the context of greater value created by collaborative systems approaches and the economic and social value they help develop. (See Global Insights article on trading for aid) This will enable the community to move from being a charitable beneficiary to both an empowered consumer and auditor of social goods. As social intermediaries, they can thus establish annuity income for solving systems issues. “Unless this is done,” they both add, “neither the SDGs nor the systems issues they are creating will have the buy-in so urgently needed.”  

The UN’s Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) undertaking a soil and water survey in Togo. Traditional development and financing models need to change if International Switzerland is to help make more than just a dent in the SDGs. (Photo: FAO)

As Wood and others point out, there has to be a completely new systems approach that can move beyond the traditional economics of funding individual projects to an overall process whereby all are leveraged collaboratively and in scale. “We know that this can be done,” said Wood. “One need only glance at how GAVI (the Geneva-based Vaccine Alliance) with its  ability to aggregate financial capital and scale as they moved the economics of vaccinations from 50 USD to closer to a dollar, or the impact of the Aga Khan Network or the international development organization BRAC, both of whom genuinely work in large-scale.” (See article in Global Insights on dealing with new urban realities)

As former U.S. President Bill Clinton once noted: “The problems of the 20th century have been solved by someone somewhere; the challenge of the 21st Century will be how we scale them.”

As growth markets have shown, and its proponents maintain, development can be facilitated by legal and technology innovation. But this has to be part of a framework that demonstrates not only higher and replicable socio-economic impact, while reducing both risk and unit cost. In turn, this will lead to a scaled, virtuous impact circle producing broader revenue and predictability, while at the same time ‘hardwiring’ social stakeholders’ agendas. In essence, what is being proposed is a complete ‘re-think’ which offers a system where the quicker you solve the social issue, the higher the return is produced.

See details on the GSCP/E4H Building Bridges event in Geneva, Switzerland, 30 November 2021.

Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years of experience reporting wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide.

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