At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015, all 193 members of the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.  They aim to end poverty everywhere.  At the same time they are a road-map to reduce inequalities, achieve gender justice, ensure universal social protection and access to essential services (water, sanitation, power, education and health), and tackle climate change by 2030. The SDGs replaced the outdated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were borne out of the ‘aid’ mindset that governments and international funding agencies should assist developing countries to bring about change. The SDG’s, thankfully, have transformed this thinking into an agenda that everyone – every community, every business, every nation and all societies  – can adhere to. The SDG’s are universal.  They apply to all countries.

On the one hand, the SDG’s (or Global Goals, as they are now being popularised) mark the burgeoning opportunity for true global citizenship – where, not just our governments, but each of us is responsible for the sustainable development of people and planet. People should be aware of the goals and what they mean.  By adopting and building them into local development goals, everyone can make a contribution. On the other hand, they also mark a significant shift in the international aid system – the financing of sustainable development globally – into one where ‘sustainable development’ becomes ‘big business’.

So, whilst we can feel warm and fuzzy about working together and doing our bit, feeling part of a global citizenry; working at the grassroots, regionally or nationally and designing projects, programs, enterprises, products and services to address the issues the Global Goals (SDGs) have now framed as global agendas; the playing field is open, but it is far from even.

There are a number of things we really need to think about. The issues are complex and are well-articulated in articles produced by the Global Policy Watch for example, but here are three off-the-bat issues that need further debate and discussion.

ONE: The Global Goals are a means to an end of a better world, but they guarantee nothing without a shift in power in decision making. The sustainable development Agenda prompts an expanded understanding and practice of development.  We must move beyond thinking in silos of poverty alleviation, gender equality or climate change by themselves, to seeing these as interlinked concerns which require structural transformation – in the international system, as well as in countries. This holistic, systems view is an imperative if our work to address systemic, root causes of our social, economic and environmental challenges is to succeed. However, the biggest challenge lies in the adoption and implementation of the Global Goals at the country-level.  Attention to whose agendas are at the table will determine the processes of their implementation.

Transparent and accountable public governance, and in particular the improved participation of members of society in designing and delivering the agenda – bottom-up and top-down – are required.  If not, there is a danger that those representing the institutional arrangements that have produced historically-unprecedented levels of inequality and unsustainable consumption and production, could be the only people at the table.

TWO: Adopting and aligning to the goals will have financial benefits, but will require investment in capacity. In signing up to the SDGs, governments will look increasingly to society for help to achieve them.  Whilst this could take the form of regulation, taxes, communication campaigns, service delivery etc, governments will want to measure and monitor progress, and understand and manage the effectiveness of their interventions. If smart, those in local and central government, as well as the philanthropic and charitable sector will look increasingly at the Global Goals and targets as an integrated framework on which to base national and local policy, planning and programmes, as well as investment and procurement strategies.

As a result, the community, NGO and third sector, including social enterprise and business, will be increasingly required to align, measure and demonstrate their impact, and this will require significant capacity and capability building. Therefore, the community and NGO sector will need to be proactive, get to grips with the growing dialogue around ‘impact investment and measurement’ and start preparing to be measurement savvy, as this will only resonate louder when the Global Goals become more embedded in our psyche.

THREE: The private sector are already poised to make the Global Goals their business. The sustainable development Agenda is already recognised by the corporate and private sector as having massive significance.  It is already changing the ways of doing business. Key international business leaders are engaging with the Global Goals because they see them as game changers. The growing focus upon ‘social corporate responsibility’ and ‘social license to operate’ will have more solid meaning when embedded in the Global Goals.  This shift is arising not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it will reduce risk and cost to be aligned with government, and it will be profitable. “Business see their greatest impact and opportunity in areas that will help drive their own business growth. When business profits from solving social problems, when it makes profit while benefiting society and business performance simultaneously, it creates solutions that are scaleable” (PWC).

However,  business is unlikely to take a holistic, integrated approach. A recent survey by Price Waterhouse Coopers among its business clients demonstrates that business will likely pick the goals that are material to the business or have the greatest negative impact. Moreover, the Agenda not only attributes a significant role for the private sector in development in the form of Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs), but it does so without providing any mechanisms by which they can be held accountable (see Adams and Mertens, 2015) – other than to encourage companies to “integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycles”. Unless this is challenged, it will allow the corporate sector and their interest groups a growing influence over agenda setting and political decision-making by governments.  Smart business will happily invest in activities to measure and report against such standards when they are certain impact investment will increase rather than divert their predicted profit.

Too important to ignore.

The SDG’s as Global Goals are very important to everyone, and we ignore them at our peril. Rather, we should engage with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the goals, targets and indicators to firstly understand them, their purpose, and the system of globalisation into which they have been born, and which breeds unique challenges as well as opportunities at local and global levels. Second, we need to apply this understanding to our own work, in our communities, organisations, businesses, society, economy and government so that their promise of a better world for people and planet is achievable. Thirdly, we need to build the skills, capacity and resources to participate in their delivery and achievement.

The success of the Global Goals and 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda relies a lot on ensuring accountability – adopting adequate mechanisms and indicators for the monitoring of progress or regressive developments in achieving the goals. As Global Policy Watch authors contend, “monitoring and review should not be reduced to the implementation of the Global Goals and their related targets. The monitoring of outputs or outcomes alone is by no means sufficient”. Rather, projects, programmes, policies and policy changes, products and services should be scrutinized and assessed for impact as they are designed, developed and implemented. Importantly, as enabled by social impact assessment (SIA), an investigation of the structural obstacles to the implementation of the Global Goals would be an imperative to disclose the power relations and vested interests behind them.

In the series of articles that will follow on this topic, we will explore why the SDGs or Global Goals are important to the work of Co-Creationz, and its mission to support the growth of social impact assessment, measurement and demonstration as a tool to promote sustainable development, creativity, participation and a just society in New Zealand and beyond.