How to save the world
for a trillion dollars
Even one as wealthy as Bill Gates or Elon Musk, a trillion dollars sounds a lot to an individual. However, when you think about the global resources available, the figure isn't as big as first thought.
A Trillion is a figure identified as required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and secure a sustainable, equitable and profitable future for us all.
Yet, surprisingly little joined-up thinking or action on applying existing and potential resources effectively to create the most impact.
Where can the leaders of our corporate foundations, philanthropists, development bank strategists, institutional and individual investors all turn to for guidance on achieving the most impact with our resources? and critically, how can they all work together?
What would it cost to change the world?
"The SDGs are feasible goals and will lead to the future we want, but they require much greater global collaboration."
Jeffrey Sachs, October 2021
The first step is to focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) – our globally agreed to-do list. Yet even that leaves the route looking a little daunting and a little unclear. There are varying estimates for the costs of meeting the SDGs ranging from US$3-7 trillion annually, and that sounds a lot! It's also hard to know where to start.
As with any significant investment, breaking the amount down into priorities and the most considerable Return on Investment makes sense. For the SDGs, this means focusing on the lowest income developing countries and the core SDG 'transformations'.
Fortunately for us all, a global team of development economists, led by Jeffrey Sachs, has done all the hard work for us. In their 2018 Report Closing the SDG Budget Gap produced for the UN and Moving Humanity, the group identified that most transformative impact could be achieved with an investment of US$300-400 billion annually, assuming growth in domestic economies too.
While still big numbers, they do start to sound more human-scale and achievable with collaboration.
Show Me The Money
Where will the Resources Come From?
In his 2021 book How To Spend a Trillion Dollars, Rowan Hopper takes on the challenge and maps out how we could achieve the global goals in health, climate change and more if we think, act and critically deploy resources collectively.
Before laying out the plan, Hopper decided to work out much resource is available globally, even in the context of COVID. He was pretty surprised to see the figures available without looking too far – was the global equivalent of money lost down the sofa.
"The US Treasury recently estimated that uncollected taxes amount to $600 billion a year, and $7 trillion in the next decade. According to Forbes, the top 1% control $162 trillion of assets. In 2020 alone, Fitch Ratings reported that $6 trillion was created through quantitative easing."
So the money is there – the core costs could be covered nearly twice over just by US uncollected taxes. The questions remain though of how to mobilise and direct that funding to the most effective areas.
In this, the team of economists reporting to the UN and others are unambiguous: the SDGs need to be the shared reference point, starting with the countries and areas that are most critical to transforming from challenge to driver of opportunity for all.
We know that multi-laterals like the UN, government funders and investors, private investors, philanthropists and corporates (including their foundations) are all looking for the most impact from their resources.
This has become especially critical in the face of the global inequalities in terms of the impact of COVID-19.
Sachs and the team focused on the 59 countries ranking lowest on the global development index. Their rationale was that these were the countries with the least opportunity to develop from their current base to create sustainable growth and job creation opportunities.
They then identified the six core areas of SDG transformations (also recognising the importance of SDGs 16 and 17 (Strong Institutions and Partnerships) to deliver on these:
Education, Gender and Inequality (SDGs 1,4,5,8,10)
Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3)
Clean Energy and Industry (SDGs 7,12,13)
Sustainable Food, Land Use, Oceans (SDGs 2,6,14,15)
Smart Cities and Transport (SDG 11)
Digital Technologies and E-Governance (SDG 9)
As an example, for education, the UN estimates an entirely reasonable and achievable extra $39billion a year to ensure universal education for all children in low- and low-to-middle income countries.
We know the theory, but how to turn this into practice?
Here at SDG Changemakers, we are utterly passionate about the SDGs, collaboration and partnerships to achieve them. The clue is in our name! We recognise though they can still seem a little abstract and complex to translate into strategy and practice across so many different areas.
So we were delighted to read How To Spend A Trillion Dollars by Rowan Hopper. He has taken a familiar thought experiment, upgraded the amount, and produced a highly practical guide to what to do with a global piggy bank of a trillion dollars focused on sustainable impact and purpose.
In his blog for Alliance magazine How To Save The World for Just A Trillion Dollars Hopper outlined his hope that the book "might help nudge philanthropists and billionaires into inspiring, effective and lucrative ways to spend some money."
Even he admits to being very surprised that Elon Musk lifted an idea straight from the book and launched a prize to stimulate innovation in carbon-capture technology as his contribution to climate change.
This is a strong example of the need to think laterally and collaboratively. Funders and donors of all kinds care deeply about climate change, and we need a range of options to break the current impasse and turn the conversation around from need to opportunity.
We all have a role to play
We are not all Elon Musk, but those countries, organisations and individuals with resources at scale can align their approaches to be complementary, innovative and focused on what will make a difference.
Critically, the assessment of really making a difference, saving the world, will not be judged only by a single grant or investment but by the future created by those decisions, made openly and in partnership.