In September 2015, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York, new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted. These SDGs address a comprehensive range of issues, from poverty, health and hunger to gender equality, climate change and energy. Some parts of the world have now re-oriented themselves towards achieving the vision of a better future by the year 2030.

The London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) predicts that more than half of the SDGs will be missed at current rates of progress; yet the ODI’s understandable pessimism comes at a time of increased innovation throughout the world. Former World Bank economist William Easterly questions the efficacy of a top-down planner’s approach to development but points to exciting new ideas from grass-roots innovators, or what he calls searchers.

One such searcher is Bisma Deu, a 16-year-old student in India. She has come up with the idea of taking useless rice husks, left over from rice production, and combining them with resin to create a viable building material. This fungi and mold-proof board — a product she calls green wood, will be used to build low-cost homes and furniture. With funding from the Social Innovation Relay, researchers like Deu are able to transform useless and even sometimes harmful waste products into useful, practical solutions that benefit their communities.

On another level, groups like the Center for Global Development (CGD) are working with the ODI to produce more effective Humanitarian Cash Transfer (HCT) programs. HCTs are generally handled in two ways. Unconditional cash transfers can be used or saved whenever and wherever by the recipient. Conditional cash transfers are a cash-for-results method — the recipient must qualify by doing such things as vaccinating a child or making progress on rebuilding a home. But less than 5 percent of cash transfers being made are unconditional.

Unconditional cash transfers allow recipients to choose what they buy, according to their greatest need. For example, when Syrian refugees in Lebanon were given cash to help cope with harsh winter conditions, instead of using the funds to buy fuel, the refugees chose to be uncomfortable in the cold and spent their aid money on food, water and starting businesses. Unconditional cash transfers often provide greater value than other forms of cash payments and in-kind aid by giving recipients the power to allocate resources to the areas of greatest need.

ODI and CGD recently convened a high-level panel to address the growing body of evidence in support of humanitarian cash transfer programs. Their research showed humanitarian cash transfers to be more effective than in-kind aid in administering relief. A four-country study found that 18 percent more people could be helped if everyone received cash instead of food. Because of the costs associated with transporting and storing relief supplies, cash transfers not only allow limited aid resources to go further, but allow economies of scale to have their full influence. The HCTs also allow the market to work. Researchers have found that when HCTs bring money to communities, goods and services find their way to the people who need them.

As innovators continue to develop new ideas to bring the world a step closer to achieving the newly implemented SDGs, we as concerned citizens can choose to stay informed and participate in the process of eliminating the worst forms of poverty.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Heeje Yoo, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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