Doing well by doing good

In hisfinal address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama said a root cause of global crisis is “a world in which 1 percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent.’’ He’s right to call on advanced economies to invest more in poor ones – and not only to improve health, governance, and opportunity far from home. Doing so also builds markets for exports and prevents states from collapsing into war and chaos, averting far-reaching ripple effects like refugee crises and extremism. But as Obama admitted, it’s tough politically to boost foreign aid when there’s always need at home.

So what if large private investors leveraged trillions of dollars under their management — far more than the richest countries or foundations have at their disposal — to do good for the world while doing well for their clients? That’s the idea behind an exciting initiative launched on the sidelines of the UN confab this week, one with the potential to do more to end poverty, boost well-being, and improve the environment than any UN resolution or aid program.

The “Trillion Dollar Challenge’’ kicked off by the State Department and Bretton Woods II is a public-private partnership to mobilize some of the $25 trillion controlled by the world’s largest asset owners — pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and endowments — into infrastructure, food security, green energy, good governance, and more, accruing benefits far away and close to home. Just 1 percent of that is $250 billion, or six times USAID’s annual budget. The idea is to direct investment capital toward achieving the 17 sustainable development goals — concrete targets including ending poverty by 2030 — that the UN agreed upon a year ago.

First, let’s do the numbers. Achieving the UN development goals will require trillions of dollars of investment. Decades ago, the vast majority of money going from rich to poor countries arrived as foreign aid. No longer. Today, development assistance stands at $181 billion annually (of which the United States contributes more than $30 billion, or .18 percent of our GDP). That’s dwarfed by $900 billion in annual private financing from high-income to low-income nations. If enough of that were directed at sustainable efforts to reduce poverty and improve health and well-being — well, the mind boggles.

The potential for institutional investors to lead and magnify that effort — creating positive social impact while earning healthy returns for their stakeholders — is staggering. Some of this is already happening: Norway, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, with $850 billion, controls 1 percent of global stock markets and has leveraged its market power by investing in clean water and green energy. By dumping environmentally unfriendly companies, Norway has made them less attractive investments.

It’s not just about being do-gooders. Social impact investing can yield better financial results. Harvard Business School economist Robert Eccles and his colleagues compared 180 US companies over 18 years and found those that integrated social and environmental policies substantially outperformed those that didn’t, both in the stock market and return-on-equity or return-on-assets.

The Bretton Woods II initiative, started by a former senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry, is offering tools to help large-asset owners analyze and invest in projects that promote development and good governance. Economic officers at US embassies around the world are poised to assist investors and share their suggestions of tax and regulatory incentives with host governments.

Boston is home to one of the largest asset management communities in the country, and to some of the biggest endowments, including Harvard’s and MIT’s. By making investments that can mitigate global risk and reduce volatility, our finance community should be leading the way in shaping a global landscape more conducive to sustainable growth and opportunity for all. As Obama said of helping poorer nations, “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.’’