We need to talk about the SDGs
Views vary on how much of a difference the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) actually made to the world. But on one thing people seem more or less united: They were a great communications tool. They took the abstract concept of “development” and turned it into a series of mostly concrete goals – fewer poor people, more kids in school, healthier mothers and babies, and so on.
According to Jan Vandemoortele, an independent researcher and UN veteran, the communications power of the MDGs rested on three pillars – the three Cs: they were clear, concise, computable.
So what about the successors to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Will the new set of goals adopted at the United Nations in October prove equally effective as a communications tool? You could be forgiven for having doubts. While the MDGs had just eight goals and 18 targets, the SDGs have 17 goals and a whopping 169 targets.
The number of goals is just one issue; there’s also the question of scope. The MDGs were essentially focused on the needs of developing countries. By contrast, the new SDGs are part of a global agenda for the development of the entire planet – they apply to wealthy countries just as much as poorer countries, and they cover a much broader range of issues: Poverty reduction, yes, but also economic sustainability, employment, climate change and much, much more.
“If you apply those three C’s to the SDGs, it’s clear you have a problem,” according to Mr. Vandemoortele.
This “problem” – if that’s what it is – was recently discussed by development communicators at a meeting in Paris of the OECD Development Centre’s DevCom network. The discussions provided fascinating insights into differing approaches on how to communicate around the SDGs.
If you’ve heard of the SDGs at all, it may well be thanks to the Global Goals campaign, brainchild of the British filmmaker Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary). The campaign is operating on many fronts: In September, to coincide with the UN General Assembly, it hosted the Global Citizen festival in New York, featuring performers like Beyoncé and Coldplay; it has produced slick videos featuring famous names like Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking and Meryl Streep; it has created a set of logos that rebrand the SDGs as “The Global Goals” and simplify their messages; and it has helped deliver a classroom lesson on the SDGs to half a billion children worldwide in 160 countries.
“We’re campaigning to make the Global Goals famous,” Piers Bradford of the Global Goals campaign said at the DevCom session. “We set out to tell seven billion people in seven days – patently ridiculous,” he admitted, “but it got people’s attention.” The actual estimated impact of the campaign is still impressive – in the region of three billion worldwide.
But the Global Goals campaign hasn’t pleased everybody. Among a number of complaints, some civil society groups have objected to the language of the campaign. They argue that it is oversimplified and fails to mention some key concepts – most notably the “sustainable development” part of the goals. Some of these criticisms were voiced at the DevCom meeting by Leo Williams of the Beyond2015 Campaign.
“Awareness should not be focused on some edited highlights of the SDGs, renamed as Global Goals and shown in films, adverts and music videos,” Mr. Williams said. “It should be about recognizing the change dynamics of the universal agenda, real meaningful participation, meaningful understanding, not just information.”
One concern of some civil society activists is that the focus on the 17 goals, and on certain goals in particular, risks obscuring the fact that they are actually part of a much broader agenda that has much to say on implementation and accountability. “There needs to be the recognition that this is an indivisible agenda,” according to Mr. Williams.
But is such a sweeping agenda really “communicable” (as they say in development circles)? Comments from a number of other speakers and delegates seemed to support the idea that it’s OK to pick and choose from the SDGs.
“I don’t think that at the local level, everybody in a country is going to associate with all the goals,” said Edith Jibunoh, who works on civil society relations at the World Bank: “I completely buy into the idea that in some countries the focus will be on certain areas, and I think that as development communicators we should be really comfortable with that.”
That view was echoed by Mr. Vandemoortele. “We have 169 targets in the SDGs – which is good – but you cannot have it all as a priority. If you have that many priorities then you have no priorities.” He argued that communication of the SDGs needs to happen at two levels, the local and the global, and that at both levels it needs to convey a strong sense of what’s happening in the real world.
“We have to go beyond global statistics, and coloured maps,” he said. Instead, he said, we need to hear more about the on-the-ground experience of the SDGs – Viet Nam’s successful “VDGs,” for example, or Cambodia’s inclusion of mine-clearing in its development goals. “Have you ever heard about these?,” asked Mr. Vandemoortele. “No, because we only hear about global statistics. Let us avoid the trap.”