Sustainable Development Goals

In development work, it’s easy to get a little tunnel vision.  We can see our beneficiaries as the most important ones, their problems as the most dire, and our own skills as the most appropriate to address them.  If you’re a small organization with limited resources, that may seem the best strategy to make an impact.  On the one hand, tunnel vision gives you laser-like focus on the problem you’re trying to solve.  It might seem a distraction to consider the neighbors problems, or the problems you’re not equipped to address, or the problems of the globe as a whole.  It’s true that persistent focus is an important component of success.  On the other hand, there’s much to be gained from zooming out to see the larger picture that your work is a part of, and that’s what this blog is about. 

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September marked the 2nd birthday of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The 17 SDGs are an answer to the question “How can we end poverty, protect the planet, and promote peace and prosperity for all?”  In September 2015, more than 150 world leaders came together at the UN Development Summit to adopt these ambitious global goals and their associated targets and indicators. The goals incorporated the lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000, the first iteration of a concerted global effort of this kind. 

 There were 8 Millennium Development Goals, credited with some huge gains like saving more than 20 millions of lives from infectious disease and birth-related problems. 

There were 8 Millennium Development Goals, credited with some huge gains like saving more than 20 millions of lives from infectious disease and birth-related problems. 

Though there are critics, most agree that the MDGs were a good start.  With lessons learned from the first go-around, the SDGs built on the MDGs in two very broad ways -- they are bigger and they are more complex.  

BIGGER - There were 8 MDGs, and 9 more goals were added in 2015 to make for a whopping 17 SDGs.  New issues included climate change, income equality, and protection of the ecosystems of the oceans and land.  Additionally, goals addressing systemic and structural problems like healthy markets, institutions, and political stability were added.  The idea was to address the problem of global poverty holistically, and recognize the importance and interconnectedness of all of these sectors.   

MORE COMPLEX – One major difference from the MDGs to the SDGs was the adoption of a framework of human rights.  There is an expressed commitment within the SDGs to leave no person behind -- no goal will be accomplished unless it is accomplished also for the most vulnerable and marginalized people.  The disabled, ethnic minorities, and women are explicitly mentioned in much of the language.  There is also much more focus on processes such as sustainability, participation, inclusivity, and cooperation.  The SDGs include not only what goals are the most important, but also the best way to get there.       

 2015's Sustainable Development Goals.  In an attempt to clarify the goals, and make them more achievable, there are 169 targets within these 17 goals!   

2015's Sustainable Development Goals.  In an attempt to clarify the goals, and make them more achievable, there are 169 targets within these 17 goals!   

The SDGs got a lot of criticism for these shifts.  By becoming more nuanced and complex, the UN took positions that opened them up to criticism from economists, human rights activists, and political commentators, in addition to development professionals. 

Some believe adding so many goals watered down their objectives, making them unachievable.  Others complain of the vague or weak language like “enhance global macroeconomic stability” or “encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices”.  Those sound like great ideas, but whose job is it to do that and how?  Still others worry that capitalism and social equality, both highlighted as essential things to grow in the SDGs, will butt heads and hamper work across all the goals.   

The UN has certainly bitten off a lot to chew with the SDGs, but so far they’ve met the critical questions with what seems a genuine scientific attempt to come up with good answers.  If we don't meet the goals by 2030, there will be plenty of lessons learned to apply to the next round.      

I think simply coming together to set these goals is important and valuable.  The conversation that it starts and the fact that sensible critiques are well-received is even more important.  For an individual or small non-profit organization engaging in development work, there is more to be gained from this global discussion than meets the eye.  Familiarity with the global goals will inform you of the larger context and richness of your work.  Understanding how global and national priorities are set can help guide you to funding opportunities.  Appreciating the goals unrelated to your work can lead to creative solutions and cross-sector partnerships, and these goals are the best shot we have at a common language to connect us.  Ultimately it’s never just about one project or one sector.  The work to be accomplished is massive, and we’ll get it done better and faster if we take the time to understand and appreciate the bigger picture.