18 August 2017

Can Sustainable Development be a stimulus for expanded civil society space?

One of the mounting concerns for philanthropy – especially for giving across international borders – is restrictions, large and small, placed by governments on civil society’s activities. Sometimes the concern is around a general phenomenon of civil society restrictions, while in other cases it is the ‘foreign funding’ dimension that is restricted.

In our practice at my organisation, where our aim is to promote thoughtful, effective philanthropy, we encourage international giving as a way to increase bonds between families and institutions in countries across the world. The Rockefeller family philanthropic legacy has included consistent support for civil society as a pillar of progress, while also emphasising the role of accountable governance and policy. In our global work we have found that so-called ‘public agendas’ that have received broad endorsement from governments, as well as other sectors, is a way to have more impact – because it allows many different actors to concert their efforts around shared norms and goals. This has been evident in funding for mitigation of climate change, for example, and more recently around the 15-year Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ending in 2030. Governments, once signed up to internationally agreed targets, are likely to see that they cannot actually deliver fully on those targets unless non-State actors contribute their efforts and funding as well.

It is not always a straightforward calculus, of course. The international human rights framework, even when countries adopt domestic legislation reinforcing their commitments, has sometimes been a source of tension between governments and civil society organisations, and even more so with international organisations and funders. Nevertheless, it is arguable that, without the international human rights framework, there would be far less tolerance of programs and advocacy that promote and operationalise such values and principles.

But the public agendas of human rights and climate change are not sufficiently broad to frame the diverse and crucial efforts of civil society writ large. That’s where the goals on sustainable development (17 goals, 169 targets) have begun to play a significant new role. They encompass social, economic and environmental challenges and interlinked solutions. They incorporate goals on inequality, government accountability, and peaceful and inclusive societies. They also promote rights and special attention to distinct target groups who have suffered discrimination and disadvantage, not least women, people with disabilities, and migrants.

In countries where we have launched our SDG Philanthropy Platform – Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia, India and the US – we have created a greater space and voice for philanthropy to not only be recognised, but to be heard and to provide input into governments’ decisions. The existence of the SDGs has helped to create a more enabling environment for philanthropy and our civil society partners. In most of these countries the process relies on long-standing national partners – Colombia’s AFE and Filantropi Indonesia, for example – as well as the UN system, which has ongoing partnership frameworks with governments in which the SDGs play an increasingly important role.

The openness and collaboration is not automatic, to be sure. There must be dialogue, and trust must be built. And obviously some government officials care not a whit about sustainable development, or any other global goals and agreements (as true in rich as in developing countries). But in every country there are ready champions, as well as those who can be persuaded that civil society and philanthropy are possible, if not crucial, partners in creating a better society. They may care more about overall prosperity and stability than about those groups who are left behind, and the civil society organisations advocating for them – but it widens the space for action.

As our SDG Philanthropy Platform expands into more countries, we will continue to measure the enabling environment for philanthropy and our partners as one crucial indicator for long-term success. We join many other national and international partners in ensuring that governments know we believe this is a crucial ingredient in the path toward 2030.


Heather Grady

Vice President, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors