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Gates Foundation says it does support the U.N. development agenda

Gates Foundation CEO Susan Desmond-Hellmann speaks to the thousand or or so attendees at the philanthropy's Global Partners Forum in Seattle, May 2015.

Editor’s note: Humanosphere published a story last week out of the Gates Global Partners Forum in which many participants were quoted ridiculing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The philanthropy believes that story misrepresented their position; we talked to their head of advocacy to clarify where they stand.

The head of policy and advocacy for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says the philanthropy does, in fact, support the broad vision established by the United Nations for fighting poverty and inequity over the next 15 years.

What the Gates Foundation does not support is trying to advocate for a development agenda that many say is too complex and ambitious to successfully motivate the public or policy makers to embrace it.

Mark Suzman

Mark Suzman

“The vision and agenda is great, but how do we turn this into a simple message that doesn’t risk dilution or lack of focus?” said Mark Suzman, president of global policy, advocacy and country programs for the world’s biggest philanthropy.

Suzman challenged the gist of our story based on last week’s Gates Foundation Global Partners Forum in which Humanosphere reported the philanthropy was rallying the troops to attack the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – aka the SDGs, a set of some 17 goals and 169 antipoverty and pro-equity targets to achieve by the year 2030.

Many speakers at the meeting did poke fun at the SDGs, referring to them as a “fantasy,” a “train wreck,” or an unworkable and “encyclopedic” wish list. Bill Gates referred to them as akin to the Bible, adding that he would prefer to start with something simpler, “like the Ten Commandments.” Even Suzman got in a jibe up on the stage before the thousand or so attendees, jokingly referring to the SDGs as “No Target Left Behind.”

“I wish I wouldn’t have said something so irresistible to a journalist,” chuckled Suzman, a former journalist. “But there’s a nuance here (the original story) missed.”

While Suzman acknowledged that there were plenty of critical – and, yes, even snarky – comments made at the Gates forum about the SDGs, he said it would be incorrect to interpret this as lack of support for what the U.N. agenda is aimed at accomplishing in general.

The question is how best to get there, he said.

mdgsThe Gates Foundation has made it clear to everyone that it tends to favor the approach taken over the previous 15 years, under the antipoverty agenda first set by the U.N. in 2000 as the Millennium Development Goals – or MDGs, eight goals somewhat arbitrarily established by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with a heavy emphasis on reducing health burdens by setting targets for reducing child and maternal mortality, getting people with HIV on life-saving treatments and the like.

Largely ignored initially by most policymakers (and even by many in the humanitarian community … perhaps like most U.N. declarations) many of the MDGs eventually caught fire with policymakers, and to some extent the public, creating momentum that achieved stunning progress for a number of the targets. Here is a good analysis at Foreign Affairs of the MDGs impact by John W. MacArthur of the U.N. Foundation.

Child and maternal mortality, for example, has been cut in half worldwide and serious gains have been made against HIV and malaria. Some MDGs didn’t find the same support or momentum, such as the environmental goals or the somewhat vague MDG 8 which called for “global partnership for development.”

The concern at the Gates confab appeared to be that the SDGs were looking more like vague aspirational goals, such as MDG 8, and moving away from the successful strategy of focusing on simpler, easily identified and tracked goals.

“Our focus at the Gates Foundation is to finish the agenda set by the MDGs and to make sure the current momentum is not lost,” said Suzman, adding that the philanthropy continues to believe health goals should be prioritized as they were with the MDGs.

But this does not translate into the Gates Foundation being opposed to the SDGs, Suzman said. In the second day at the Global Partners Forum (closed to the media), he said, the focus with advocacy organizations like Save the Children, Oxfam, the ONE Campaign and others was about how to advocate for the SDGs in a way that will sustain and advance the gains already achieved in development over most of the past 15 years.

More evidence that the foundation supports the UN agenda is that it funds a number of initiatives and organizations like Global Citizen and Action 2015 aimed at rallying public support in advance of the September UN General Assembly meeting, when the SDGs are expected to be formally adopted.

“The great virtue, or one of the great virtues, of most of the MDGs is that they were time-bound, easy to understand and had clear targets,” Suzman said. The SDGs were created less arbitrarily and in a more broadly inclusive process based on consensus-building at the U.N., he said, but this admirable and necessary process has produced a document and agenda that everyone agrees is going to be a challenge to sell as a package deal.

“The challenge of having 17 goals and 169 targets is that it’s very difficult to focus or set priorities,” Suzman said. “I worked at the U.N. for seven years … goal-setting and declarations do not by themselves generate action.”

Amina Mohammed, UN adviser on the Sustainable Development Goals

Amina Mohammed, UN adviser on the Sustainable Development Goals

One of the few at the Gates partners meeting willing to be quoted pushing back hard against the chorus of criticism of the SDGs was Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian who worked on gender and education targets within the MDG framework and is now the U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon’s adviser on the SDGs.

Mohammed said everyone would like the fight against poverty and inequity to be simple, but it’s not.

“These are complex and difficult problems we are trying to solve,” she said. “The MDGs addressed symptoms, not root causes. … The SDGs are complex and difficult because what we need to do is complex and difficult.”

“There is no quick and simple fix, never has been, which is why the band-aid keeps coming off,” Mohammed said.

Suzman acknowledged that many participants and speakers at the Gates partners meeting (he included himself) may have gone a bit overboard piling on the SDGs. “But you have to be clear what the piling on was about,” he said.

It’s not about trying to undermine the U.N. agenda, Suzman emphasized, but rather about trying to figure out how to make it most likely to succeed.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.