It has been more than six months now since the UNDP Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were announced in September 2015. As part of the ‘UNDP 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, the SDGs are comprised of 17 goals that aim to, among others, end poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change within the next 15 years.
Reactions to the SDGs have been largely and expectedly positive. At the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit, where the SDGs were announced, 150 world leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe pledged their adoption of the Agenda.
In the ensuing months, national representatives to the UN continuously reaffirm their commitment to the effort by highlighting strategy and policy transformations in their home countries in alignment to the Agenda. On the communication front, Advocates of the SDGs feature a diverse range of luminaries including footballer Lionel Messi, businessman Jack Ma, Grammy Award winner Shakira, and most recently, Red of the Angry Birds.
A mountain to climb
The SDGs were built on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were initiated in the year 2000 to address eight anti-poverty targets by 2015. The UNDP claim to have achieved enormous progress on the MDGs while acknowledging that poverty remains a prevalent global issue.
The new SDGs, according to the UNDP on their website, “go much further than the MDGs, addressing the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people”. A noble aspiration that has also invited differing views and concerns.
At a recent conference at Notre Dame University, Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a renowned SDGs Advocate himself raised a concern over the risk of the Goals being too broad or vague in the eyes of the public. In addressing this, he highlighted the importance of breaking down the Goals into ‘specific targets’ to make them more realistic, relatable, and achievable.
In his enlightening article, ‘Sustainable Development Goals, or a dog’s breakfast?’, Prof. Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University underscored the limitations of the exercise, branding it as ‘archetypal UN’. He views the SDGs as the result of an “orgy of self-congratulation on the MDGs followed by an orgy of conferences, consultations and debate”. A thoroughly insightful take on the subject, nonetheless.
Guidance for businesses
For businesses, the SDGs provide a practical framework that can guide organisations in designing programmes, policies, and strategies in their pursuit of excellence in corporate citizenship.
In charting their sustainable development journey, companies might be primarily driven by factors such as the beliefs of their leaders, or the needs of the communities where they operate – which is perfectly fine. To benchmark and validate on their existing initiatives, however, the SDGs offer a wide range of perspectives that cover the many aspects of how an organisation can step-up in operating more responsibly, or improve their internal processes.
Goals 5 (Gender Equality), 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth), and 9 (Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure), for example, are relevant references for organisations in devising policies for recruitment, manpower planning, and human capital development, among others.
Additionally, as a replacement of the eight components under the previous MDGs, the 17 Goals of the SDGs open doors to new areas of focus and opportunities for social entrepreneurship. Elements such as infrastructure development and global partnerships that are further highlighted in the SDGs provide new avenues for social entrepreneurs to explore and work on.
Getting the conversation going
In a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) entitled ‘Make it your business: Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals’, 92% of over 950 business respondents surveyed claimed to be aware of the SDGs. Out of the same pool, 71% said that they are already taking action to respond to the aspirations of the SDGs. While these figures seem encouraging, it will be a while until the traction following-up to these statistical commitments are seen.
It is also worth noting that from the PwC report, only 33% of the over 2,000 non-business respondents said that they were aware of the SDGs. An observation that is not entirely surprising.
‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is not an everyday topic. But people do talk about doing good, and that is fundamental to the UNDP agenda. The SDGs provide a well-structured, organised, and reasonably comprehensive overview of how we can do good.
Thus getting the conversation going on these SDGs is an important step. Increasing the awareness level on the subject among the public is key towards providing focus on how society can channel their individual strengths towards causes that they believe in. It is by conversing and discussing these Goals, also, that ideas get sparked, creativity gets flowing, and innovation comes into play.
To some, the need to do good as individuals is common sense. As organisations, however, priorities are more dynamic, thus anchoring to a foundation such as the SDGs is crucial to ensure a groupwide sustainable development agenda that is more, well, sustainable.
Making promises and pledging commitments are the easy parts. Translating talk into action is where we tend to falter.
 ‘Sustainable Development Goals, or a dog’s breakfast?’ (https://www.policyforum.net/sustainable-development-goals-or-a-dogs-breakfast)
 ‘Sachs at Notre Dame: ‘Pay Attention’ to Sustainable Development Goals’ (http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/sachs-notre-dame-pay-attention-sustainable-development-goals)
 ‘New global goals: are they business critical?’ (https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/services/sustainability/sustainable-development-goals/sdg-research-results.html)
Asrif is studying our Global Online MBA programme.