In 2015, the UN Must Balance Effort and Aspiration to Ratify the Sustainable Development Goals

As a year, 2015 holds great promise for the global engagement community. We can celebrate the sunset of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and also look forward to the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will set a vision for the next 15 years.

The MDGs, though flawed, were revolutionary. Drafted in 2000, they provided a common understanding of the world’s most egregious social problems. They laid out eight goals, including poverty reduction, improved maternal health, and universal primary education. Further, they set a timeline for improvement, calling for significant advancements by 2015.

Over the past year, many important international leaders from the heads of USAID and DfID to Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have celebrated the progress that has been made. And it is true that a great deal has been accomplished.

At the same time, two key challenges constrained their impact. First, the MDGs were hatched by a handful of people in a back room. While they were endorsed by the United Nations in 2001, the limited perspectives taken into account in their formation resulted in a lack of strategy and cohesion in terms of how to move forward. This lack of cohesion was only compounded by the UN’s assumption that people and institutions would come together organically to move toward those goals.

Deirdre White, CEO of PYXERA Global, and Alicia Bonner Ness, Editor-in-Chief of The New Global Citizen, discuss which nine of the total 17 SDGs represent the most purposeful objectives within a 15-year timeframe.

Second, the goals did not lay out strategies for effective monitoring, evaluation, and impact measurement. At first glance, MDG reports suggest that a great deal has been achieved: the number of people living on less than $1.25 was halved, exponentially more children have access to primary schooling across the globe, and the incidence and mortality of HIV/AIDs and malaria have been significantly reduced. But few people realize that the baseline data for most of those goals is 1990, not 2000. Without this knowledge, it is easy to be impressed with all that has been achieved, but such progress took place over 25 years, not the 15 generally cited.

These results also encompass the significant economic transformation that has taken place in China and India during this time period, due not to donor intervention, but to enterprise and technology-driven economic change. A burgeoning middle class in both of those countries necessarily skews the overall progress indicators on poverty, health, and education. Those boasting success do not take into account progress that was well underway in the early 2000s and not necessarily related to the goals. In fact, there has been no formal analysis of whether the MDGs contributed in any way toward the positive trends.

In short, while the MDGs were an important innovation in development planning, we must address their shortcomings in order to achieve more over the next 15 years.

It is in this environment that the UN has put forward the Sustainable Development Goals.  Currently in draft form, these goals are expected to be ratified in September by the UN General Assembly. One lesson clearly learned from the MDGs was that the goals for the next 15 years cannot be created by a small number of people with no external consultation. Thus, the UN launched a highly inclusive process, inviting input from the public, private, and social sectors. Everyday citizens had an opportunity for comment through an online tool. The result of this broad consultation is the Open Working Group proposal that can be found on the UN website today.

The inclusive process that led to this draft proposal was surely important. However, openness to broad input has had a social price. The 17—yes, 17—proposed goals (along with 169 associated targets) seek to effectively address and overcome every challenge known to humankind. The goals as currently stated are heady ones, envisioning a 2030 world with no poverty, no inequality, nor injustice where, on a sustainably-maintained planet, no man, woman or child is hungry, ill, uneducated, or unemployed. My inner idealist embraces this glorious vision, but I cannot deny my practical nature: there is a lot of work to be done and a 15-year timeline is short.

Until recently, looking at the list of 17, I felt certain I was reviewing an early draft. That was until the World Economic Forum in January, when I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable on the SDGs and how public-private-social sector partnerships can contribute to their successful achievement. The two UN Ambassadors charged with finalizing the goals were also participants and their message was clear: the current proposal is, in fact, the one that will be voted on by the General Assembly later this year.

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General, United Nations - The Sustainable Development Goals, currently in draft form, are expected to be ratified in September by the UN General Assembly. Photo Credit: Monika Flueckiger

What is the value in setting goals that are unachievable?  I wondered. His Excellency Macharia Kamau, the UN Ambassador from Kenya, succinctly answered my question. “We are at a level of ambition that has never been seen in human history, and that level is achievable.”  He further challenged, “How shall we embrace it?”  How could I not be inspired to climb on board?

But these are not realistic 15-year goals. The totality of change envisioned requires the destruction of long-held social structures, the demolition of broken institutions, the provision of an unfathomable volume of services, and the development of unimaginable infrastructure. Fifteen years is not enough time to complete this extensive laundry list. In fact, a recent report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) states, rather bleakly, that without overhauling development practices across the board, the better world we seek might not exist even by 2100, let alone 2030.  According to ODI, it will take 76 years for all Ghanaian women have access to skilled care during childbirth. Kenya will not have sanitation for all its residents for another 150 years. We are more than six decades from sub-Saharan Africa achieving equal access to education for boys and girls.

Based on my experience building and executing meaningful partnerships over the past 25+ years, I strongly believe that the United Nations must pare down the list, and revisit the broad nature of some of the goals. I know, though, that this is unlikely. If the SDGs stand as currently drafted, each organization and individual committed to global engagement and social impact must evaluate the list and see how best we each can have a real and meaningful impact over the coming years. Even without the ability to erase history and its effects, there is still a great deal that can be achieved.

For PYXERA Global, I have reduced the list of goals to nine areas where private, public, and social sector partnerships can make a meaningful difference. A tenth goal, regarding partnerships for sustainable development is, for PYXERA Global, a methodology at the core of our approach, how different players can best make measurable contributions, not an end goal in and of itself.

I believe the nine goals here represent the most purposeful objectives this community can pursue within a 15-year timeframe.  Certainly, we are unable to address each of these goals in every geographic and political context; rather we will rely on our 25 years of experience and our deep relationships around the globe to determine where we must best focus our energies and those of our partners.

I remain hopeful that the United Nations will revisit its decision to endorse the full list of 17 SDGs; however, I am prepared to focus my energies and those of PYXERA Global and our partners on the above nine goals, for which we will develop our own sober and appropriate targets and indicators . I encourage other organizations and individuals struggling with the SDGs to do the same. Select the areas where you can contribute, define the real impact you can effect, then put together the right partnerships to do so.

The world’s biggest challenges will not be resolved by any one sector alone. To effectively move the needle on any of these objectives, the global engagement community must learn how to better create, maintain, and capitalize on strong partnerships across sectors. This journey from the aspiration of the SDGs to their achievement will require focus and true partnership. While the SDGs are overly ambitious and may be ill-advised on a 15-year timeline, their pursuit is valiant. Moving in partnership provides the global community’s best chance at achieving such an aspirational vision.

Feature Photo Credit: Monika Flueckiger

Deirdre White

Deirdre White

Deirdre White is an internationally recognized leader in the field of economic development. As CEO of PYXERA Global, Deirdre spearheaded the growth of best practices in Global Pro Bono to benefit global corporations, local governments, and nonprofits worldwide. Widely cited for her thought leadership, Deirdre has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, and Fast Company, and contributed to MarketWatch and Stanford Social Innovation Review. Previously, she served as a facilitator of the Employee Engagement Action Network at the Clinton Global Initiative and participated in Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Initiative and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s Leadership Forum for Global Citizen Diplomacy.

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