Ask the average person in any part of the world what are the top 17 issues that will change the future of the world and, most likely, you will get a blank stare. These global tipping points are summed up in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by 193 countries in 2015, that outline the most urgent priorities we must address to save humanity and our planet.
However, the majority of us don’t realize how much these global goals could impact our future and why we need to get involved.
The fact is, international policymakers and the development community understand the goals, but the public, by and large, do not. This isn’t surprising: the UN and its partners often fail to communicate in plain language their importance to the people who have the biggest stake in their success.
For example, one of the goals is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Human life depends on food and the unsustainable use of our natural resources is leading to global food shortages, skyrocketing food prices and deepening nutrition deficits. Food quality is directly linked to our health; we will see cancer and obesity rates go up. Everything is interconnected but the goals lay out a roadmap of how we must act.
This week, governments are meeting at the UN to discuss if we are on target to reach the goals by 2030. Increasing public awareness and engagement is a major concern. It has been two years since these issues were identified and goals and targets were set. However, governments are still grappling with how to raise awareness for them and mobilize support.
This is where the UN knows that it has a communication problem. In 2015, United Nations University issued a “Jargon Buster” mobile app that deciphers more than 250 acronyms and converts various concepts around the SDGs into plain language. That’s good, but in order for governments and UN officials to engage deeply with the general public, they need a more comprehensive approach that reaches out to people in different areas, simply and directly.
On a positive note, civil society - those of us who are not government or UN officials representing different sectors of society - turned out in record numbers for the global meeting at the UN and has been actively engaged. It is civil society that works alongside local communities, has on-the-ground experience and holds governments accountable for their commitments.
While 44 governments will report on their progress towards achieving the SDGs, thousands of community leaders, academic and policy experts and nongovernmental organizations will be there to provide their perspective on the reality.
This transparency is an important development. But we can’t hold governments accountable and protect our rights if we don’t care about the SDGs. It has to be a two-way street.
Last year, the non-profit Corporate Citizenship published a study on the SDGs in which Unilever CEO Paul Polman said that the ‘Sustainable Development Goals are the fundamental cornerstone to secure future economic and business growth…It is not possible to have a strong, functioning business in a world of increasing inequality, poverty and climate change.”
It’s a strong, easy to understand, statement from a business leader. Yet, we are mainly failing to communicate the extent of good that these goals are trying to achieve and the huge opportunity before us to the widest community possible.
We have an ethical responsibility to help those who lack basic necessities. The popular mindset that we should look to our own interests is a shortsighted lie in the face of the interconnectedness of the social, economic and environmental issues addressed by SDGs. They each impact us in a very personal way and are a wake-up call to participate.
We must do our part as citizens of our countries and the world. We must hold our government officials accountable. We must encourage business to engage for the sake of future markets and the good of their customers. We must encourage our neighbors to understand what the SDGs are and explain to them that they don’t just impact people far away whom they don’t know, but affect us directly.
Those of us who have voices must make it clear why the SDGs matter, because – in the plainest language possible – if we don’t, the planet that supports us will very soon simply fail to sustain us. It is in our best interest – just as it is in governments’ best interests –to get more people to care about the SDGs. We can, and must, do better.