Sustainable Development Goals: Beware of the Blind Spots

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by all UN member states represent an aspiring and ambitious set of goals. Some may argue that these are too ambitious given the mixed success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While the debate on whether these are too diffuse or too challenging, and whether they are too narrow or lack focus will continue, but no one can deny that any of these goals, or the indicators associated with these are urgent, important and critical for our collective well-being and equity.

In the backdrop of the challenges with the MDGs, creating a broader, richer and more inclusive set of goals was not easy, but that difficulty pales in comparison with the task ahead, of actually achieving them. Billions are being mobilized and invested, but the path ahead is anything but easy. While there is no silver bullet or a single recipe for success, a few paths have become obvious. It is clear that there is no chance of success without coordination within the SDG efforts. Poor performance on one SDG, such as environment (in SDGs 13, 14 and 15) will affect health (SDG 3), clean water access (SDG 6) and will have impact on hunger eradication (SDG 1) and most likely on peace and security (SDG 16). Another fundamental component, which is likely to influence all SDGs is a strong, robust and clear push for improvement in science, technology and inclusive innovation for all nations.

The recent UN forum on Science Technology and Innovation (STI) aimed at this very core topic. The aim was to mobilize scientific research and innovation among member states, stakeholders, governments and non-governmental organizations. The forum was rich in attendance from leaders in government, diplomatic corps, academia, UN institutions and civil society. Perhaps the strongest and most exciting part was a strong presence of young researchers, innovators and students who came in large numbers from around the world. While the conversation and discussions were insightful, and sometimes provocative, there were several blind spots in the policy and action, which if ignored, can become deep fissures and potentially derail the noble effort.

First is the internalization of the SDGs at universities, colleges and research institutes. Several frustrated students, and faculty, from universities around the world remarked that despite their continued efforts to engage their colleagues, there has been little interest among the research community and scholars who are interested in engagement with SDGs. As an academic, I can safely say that there are very valid reasons for this lack of interest in the research community. In many ways, for a scientist interested in a strong research enterprise, there may be disincentives in the current climate to work on policy and impact. In the absence of research funding, incentives and absence of recognition for tenure, promotion and career advancement, the engagement with the scientific research community will remain, at best, nascent.

Second, with the exception of Japan and a couple of other countries, the role of private sector has been, at best, limited in advancing the national and international SDG agenda. The role of private sector and entrepreneurs in innovation cannot be overstated. Yet, the drive for sustainable development goals has largely been through the public sector, particularly in countries where the development challenges are most significant. The typical argument given in the defense of this lack of engagement by the private sector is based on different priorities for the public and the private enterprise. While that may be true, it is naïve to assume that the private sector does not care, or would not care about SDGs. There are strong arguments to be made about why a for-profit company should care about better environment, access to energy, gender equity, peace and security and cities with a better infrastructure. These arguments to companies, particularly in low and middle income countries, are yet to be made. Private enterprises are often absent from any national policy on achieving SDGs in various countries (Japan being a notable exception, where corporate leadership from Hitachi is part of the national and trans-national effort in achieving SDGs).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sustainability of sustainable development goals itself needs to be thought through. How engaged or even aware are those who will be in the positions of power in the next 10-15 years? Students are woefully unaware of the goals and what they represent. This is not just true among my students here in the US but also became clear on my recent interactions with students in Pakistan, Lebanon, Brazil, Ghana and Tanzania. If those who will be in the position of authority, in charge of fostering innovation, and creating national policies for research are unaware, the task ahead becomes even more challenging.

The spirit of SDGs is to achieve what is best for all of us, regardless of age, gender, social status or our place of birth. Let us hope that the blind spots do not derail us from this lofty goal.

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