Public Policy

November 16, 2017

Are the Sustainable Development Goals Leaving the Public Behind?


In the wake of the first UK report on the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs), as many commentators are providing analysis and criticism of the progress thus far, it is of great importance to ask a more basic question – do the public understand them?

Given that policy making decisions are often born out of public pressure, the need for a well-informed public on the subject is significant. If, as a nation, we are to meet our agreed-upon global obligations, popular understanding, if not active backing, is a must.

Yet, to the frustration of many professionals working in the sustainability sphere, there is an unfortunate disconnect between the academic and corporate understanding of sustainable development. Add to that the general public’s grasp of the subject and it’s easy to see how awareness and perceptions can vary considerably across society. While it is important to scrutinise the success of the SDGs to date, it’s of equal importance to ask how effectively we are communicating to the public the very need of such goals and the reasons why we cannot fail in our pursuit to achieve them.

On 1 January 2016, when the 17 Global Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development came into force, countries around the world adopted ambitious targets: to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. While the SDGs are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the goals by 2030.

The UN has been clear that the goals require everyone to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and the general public. Statements like these make a noble case, but do little to actually inform the public of the scale of problems we face globally. Despite their earnest ideals, the SDGs will not by themselves inspire the public support that their success hinges upon.

Perhaps the most effective way to communicate the SDGs is to appeal to our ability to cognitively empathise with the situations of others. Although using empathy in public policy has its problems, communicating the human side of the goals should be an integral part of them.

Take for example goal number one: No Poverty: to end poverty in all its forms – everywhere. Do we understand the scale of poverty, that 1 in 5 people still live on less than USD $1.25 a day? Are we aware of the feeling of poverty? In fact, it may be closer to home than we realise – as the UN points out, poverty is more than a lack of income or resources; it includes lack of basic services such as education, social discrimination and exclusion. Portraying what poverty means is an important part of eradicating it.

Consider goal number four: Quality Education – to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. The UN recognises major progress has been made for education access, specifically at the primary school level, but acknowledges that 103 million youth worldwide currently lack basic literacy skills. Few would dispute the importance of addressing this, and part of the SDGs’ challenge is to bring these facts to public recognition.

We should be mindful of a worrying statistic: according to a 2013 survey, only 4% of people in the UK had an understanding of the Millennium Development Goals, the SGDs’ predecessor. It should therefore be a high priority to focus our attention on encouraging more people to not only understand the SDGs, but to support action to accomplish them.

The ambitious SDG agenda sets out the framework through which the world could work together to combat the most pressing challenges of our time. The goals were agreed by all 193 UN member states, but this should not be considered mission accomplished. The real task is now to persuading the citizens of these countries that we must meet them.