Making the Sustainable Development Goals usable

Tomorrow, leaders meet in New York to sign successors of the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals.

Depending on which article you consult, the MDGs were either a success, a failure, or neither/both. But whatever our stance, time's up. Now, the SDGs will sweep in to give form to the next fifteen years.

I've read a lot of bad press about the SDGs. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't shared a few grumbles (and chuckles) at their expense. But when putting this post together, I had no interest in cementing (too many) of my negative reactions in writing. What sense was there in lambasting the SDGs? After all, any steps towards global sustainability, whatever that may mean, are steps. They either fail or succeed, but either way we have the opportunity to learn something.

Okay, a quick once-over of the SDGS does inspire some questions. Why are there 17? Many of them could clearly be condensed. Who on earth, besides Jeffrey Sachs and maybe the Pope, is going to remember them?  What, might we ask, is a sustainable city? If the sky really is the limit, why are we aiming to "end" hunger, but just "reduce" inequality? How can we reach agreement on what it means to "promote" economic growth to the extent that it actually happens? 

The bottom line seems to be that the SDGs' developers are human. They made a list and then failed to edit it, and now we all get to pay the price by being confused.

But this is the list we have - and at least it exists. Flawed does not mean useless. So perhaps our next steps are to define our own jobs and actions in terms of the goals. Which goals are we addressing with our personal and professional projects? How can we adapt our work to address a given goal in a more focused way?

The SDGs are integrally connected to one another, and address interlinked challenges. This means when we try to define what goal our work focuses on, we'll often end up with all of them. Not so helpful. 

An example. My work focuses on responsible sourcing of agricultural raw materials (SDG 2, 12, 13, 15, 17). I'm also working on improving opportunities and prosperity in rural agricultural areas (SDG 1, 2, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17). Unfortunately, contextualizing what I do with regard to so many goals is confusing and overwhelming. It doesn't help me prioritize next steps. 

But perhaps by isolating the one or two goals that most strongly resonate with our work, we can give the SDGs shape. For me, those goals are SDG 2 and SDG 12. Describing what I'm working on in this vocabulary allows me to communicate a complex, multi-level problem and project in simpler terms, to more people. 

The SDGs are abundant, interrelated, and in some ways laughably abstract. But they build a global foundation, a common understanding of the challenges. This is the basis on which we can come together and understand one another when we talk our work as related to another laughably abstract concept - sustainability itself. This foundation supports us in forming alliances and collaborative projects with the least possible confusion and misinformation.  

It's certainly not a waste of time for all of us to take 15 minutes to frame our work in the context of the SDGS. Not every SDG, just the one or two that resonate with our deepest passions. I knew which ones those were by the sense of pride I felt when I pictured myself telling a complete stranger what I do. My projects aim to SDG 2) end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, and SDG 12) ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.