from Development Channel

Moving Beyond Utopia to What’s Possible for 2030: Setting Realistic Sustainable Development Goals

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the plenary of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development summit in Rio de Janeiro June 22, 2012 (Reuters/Paulo Whitaker).

May 18, 2015

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the plenary of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development summit in Rio de Janeiro June 22, 2012 (Reuters/Paulo Whitaker).
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Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Deirdre White, chief executive officer of PYXERA Global.

In January, the United Nations put forward the Open Working Group proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a set of seventeen goals, along with 169 associated indicators. This proposal will be voted on by the United Nations General Assembly this September. While it has many merits, it doesn’t, in the end, help practitioners make the most progress in bettering people’s lives.

First, the SDG proposal is overwhelming. Not only are there too many goals, but each one is also quite expansive. For example, the first goal to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” is both broad and ambiguous. Many of the other SDGs such as “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” and “provide access to justice for all… at all levels” are similarly far-reaching.

Because of their breadth, these goals will be difficult for development organizations to operationalize. For example, the first SDG—“end poverty”—does not translate easily into a specific set of interventions on the ground.

Additionally, the SDGs approach human development in a piece-meal fashion, addressing poverty, food security, education, health, employment, and sanitation as stand-alone challenges. This isolationist approach is detrimental because it discounts the systemic nature of development challenges and thus makes the task of tackling them larger. Effective and efficient sustainable development requires coordinated rather than independent campaigns on all fronts.

While it may be too late to reconceptualize the SDGs, framing them differently would help development organizations overcome their shortcomings. We at PYXERA Global have examined the seventeen SDGs and distilled them, as shown in the below graphic, into four lead focus areas: health, human rights, natural/human environment, and economic opportunity/employment.

Click to enlarge: PYXERA four lead focus areas.
Click to enlarge: PYXERA Global four lead focus areas.

Reframing the SDGs makes them more accessible and digestible for practitioners. By consolidating the overwhelming volume of goals, PYXERA’s framework enables organizations to concentrate on a specific focus area that they are well-suited to address.

Additionally, the framework allows practitioners to recognize areas of overlap among different development objectives and to design programs that address their systemic nature. By taking into consideration the interrelatedness of the goals, practitioners will be able to address societal challenges more quickly and sustainably. For example, when addressing community health, one must consider not just health alone, but also issues of water and sanitation (goal six), food security (goal two), and the promotion of healthy lives at all ages (goal three) to ensure long-lasting change.

Yet, it’s not enough to create an actionable development framework. It is critical that the United Nations and proponents of the SDGs also emphasize a tri-sector approach. While goal seventeen encourages global partnerships, a cross-sector approach explicitly brings together different sectors.

Public, private, and social sectors all contribute unique strengths and tools. Each has a role to play in creating the systemic change needed to make sustainable and real progress on human development. Social sector organizations build legitimacy and trusted relationships at a local level. They also ensure that efforts deliver meaningful impact to the most vulnerable communities. Government, on the other hand, creates the enabling environment necessary for social change to be effective, providing infrastructure, educational facilities, and social services. And whereas the public sector rarely has a tolerance for failure, the private sector experiments with solutions to weed out inefficiencies, provide financial resources, and drive critical technological innovations.

In my own work at PYXERA Global, I have seen how tri-sector partnerships align the strengths of different sectors to achieve better results. The Joint Initiative for Village Advancement (JIVA), for example, is a community development program aimed at enhancing livelihoods in three rural villages in Rajasthan, India. The program is a partnership between the residents of the three villages, the John Deere Foundation, PYXERA Global, and the community-based NGO Jatan Sansthan.

Each partner brings complementary competencies and specific expertise in agriculture, community development, and gender. These contributions have translated into integrated interventions in agriculture, income security, education, and infrastructure. After two and a half years, JIVA has contributed much to these three villages: over half of households adopted at least one new agriculture practice, leading 50 percent of farmers to substantially increase their profits. JIVA’s after-school program enrolled 100 percent of primary school drop-outs across all of the villages, helping 84 percent of them reintegrate into formal schooling. At the same time, JIVA’s educational intervention helped students across the villages improve test scores.

While the SDGs articulate our highest hopes for human progress, our efforts must be grounded in an integrated, tri-sector approach to truly ensure realistic, sustainable progress against today’s development challenges.

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