Expert Insight
Credits United Nations SDG Action Campaign @SDGaction
Published on July 9, 2020

Diverse Innovation Portfolio for SDGs - Part 1: Design and Development

UN Joint SDG Fund was launched in 2018 to catalyze acceleration of the progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its core mandate is to invest in solutions that produce transformative results that catalyze change across systems, sectors, and industries. What usually requires 5-10 or more years is expected to be done in 2-3. This cannot be done merely by improving efficiency and doing things faster or channeling more money into the existing systems. It requires “doing things differently” and “breaking down the silos” – design of business models and policies that facilitate innovative solutions that scale up rapidly and ensure sustainable impact.




Design of Innovation Portfolio Approach

The first challenge was to design and develop an innovation fund that operates through joint programmes (programmes involving partners across sectors and policy domains) - and provide added value via shared learning, multisectoral partnerships, and strategic communications. It could not be a typical innovation fund that invests primarily in initial designs of solutions (e.g. experimentation) because tangible results were expected in a relatively short period of time. Instead, it prioritized “mature” proposals that already have a strong foundation and leverage existing partnerships and capacities. Introducing novel programme approach had to be done through iterative design (as the waters were “uncharted”) and a highly inclusive process (as it involves diverse and distributed stakeholders).


The design of the programme led to the operationalization of the following stages:

  • Participatory design of initial proposals (Concept Notes) that prioritize innovative but mature ideas with promising catalytic effect;
  • Technical assessment based on a robust framework (11 criteria individually scored and weighted; each proposal assessed independently by three experts);
  • Inclusive development of full-fledged joint programmes that balance between sound operationalization of the innovative idea and high flexibility in implementation;
  • Transparent application of comprehensive quality assurance (9 criteria iteratively reviewed);
  • Implementation of joint programmes based on devolution to the local level and high degree of flexibility to “course-correct”; and
  • Innovative multi-tiered monitoring, learning, reporting and evaluation.


All elements of the design were made flexible because “over-design” applied to diverse country contexts hinders divergent thinking and practices that are essential for innovation. For each phase, there was a standard approach which included generic templates, procedures, and milestones. The design of these was intended to “nudge” programmes to ensure a strong commitment by all stakeholders to results at scale, while also enabling the capacity to continuously integrate learning and adjust to the dynamic development context. Programmes were directed towards considering their engagement through the lenses of “eco-system” so as to prioritize leveraging new opportunities and related initiatives - rather than establishing an isolated set of activities. The pivotal aspect was the Theory of Change for SDG Acceleration, informed by integrated analysis of baseline and trends, mainstreaming human rights and gender (on the new Gender Marker), and with implementation is led by local stakeholders.


Development of the First Portfolio in 35 Countries

The first portfolio was launched in 2019 with US$ 70 million of investment. It includes programmes in 35 countries  that address policy innovation for integrated social protection focusing on the most vulnerable, leaving no one behind. The programmes are contextualized and focused on local priorities, so the portfolio became very diverse. Several illustrations should suffice:

  • A wide span of countries: from Least Developed (e.g. Malawi) to Upper Income countries (e.g. Argentina); from landlocked (e.g. Mongolia) to small islands (e.g. Barbados); from large (e.g. Mexico) to small (e.g. Sao Tome and Principe); from those with stable institutions (e.g. Vietnam) to those impacted by fragility (e.g. Somalia).
  • Understanding social protection systems as those that address vulnerabilities across the whole life cycle, leading the programmes address: a) children, youth, elderly; b) specific issues such as disability or gender inequality; and b) multidimensional aspects of childhood, employability, food security, entrepreneurship, natural disasters, and climate crisis.
  • Cross-sectoral nature that address root-causes of vulnerability with some redesigning large systems for massive increase of social protection coverage (from pension systems to child benefits to healthcare), and others having a narrower but more intersectional scope (e.g. professionalizing female domestic care providers in indigenous communities).
  • Catalyzing progress across interdependent SDGs leading to the portfolio addressing a total of 11 SDGs - the top 6 being: SDG 1 (poverty), SDG 10 (inequality), SDG 5 (gender), SDG 2 (food security/agriculture), SDG (rule of law / institutions), and SDG 3 (health/wellbeing).


Spearheading innovation in systemic manner towards transformative results at scale require very different entry points and the involvement of very different stakeholders in each country. The portfolio supports large number of sectors (5-6 on average per country) that typically operate in “silos” and implementation of programmes includes a total of 615 partners. In terms of geography, programmes engage with central, regional and local levels, often combining them into a mix of local and national solutions. Overall, the portfolio supports 109 innovations that will accelerate the progress on the SDG leading to scaling up 74 systemic solutions and increasing the scope of impact of 80 policies by January 2022.


Where Next?

The question arises: how does one manage such a diverse portfolio efficiently and effectively? As mentioned, the approach is iterative, and learning is integrated into improving the overall approach. Also: how to do it in a way that provides for both systemic local impact and global relevance for the Fund? It is work in progress, but main policies have already been established to provide “handrails” and guidance for learning that facilitates further iterations of the portfolio management.


Read Part 2: Diverse Innovation Portfolio for SDGs – Part 2: Managing and Learning.