17 weeks to Davos. 17 global goals to achieve a sustainable future. 17 blog posts exploring the UN’s vision for humankind.


Last weekend the 193 member states of the United Nations ratified 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Together, the 17 goals are an ambitious effort to end poverty and hunger, to establish equality for all, to protect our planet, and to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for humankind. The UN wants to achieve these goals by 2030. It’s a 15-year sprint with the pistol firing on January 1, 2016.

This isn’t the UN’s first global race. They’ve been here before. The Millennium Development Goals ratified in 2000 were just as far-reaching, though for a more modest 8 goals. Reviews on progress are mixed. As with everything, how you measure progress determines how you claim success. One of the most touted successes is the 43% reduction of people living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $1.25 per day. It was accomplished in 15 short years. Worldwide. Rather impressive.

Critics claim many left extreme poverty because of economic growth in India and China, not because of specific efforts by UN agencies. But that is precisely the point. Long-term success will come only from sustainable development — economic, technological, political — through a group effort. Private enterprise and the market economies they thrive on are crucial.

Governments around the world pledged their commitment to achieving the 17 Global Goals, but they won’t succeed alone. That’s why the 17th goal is to “revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” — a partnership that must embrace, and be embraced by, the private sector and their financial systems, technological innovation, and capacity building necessary for success.

Davos will tell us whether success is even possible.

Described as a meeting between the business, political, and intellectual elite of the world, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos discusses some of the most urgent issues in our world. The type of issues the Sustainable Development Goals are trying to address. It is critical that the leaders in Davos this January agree if humanity is to have any chance of crossing the finish line.


Financing programs

Financing the Sustainable Development Goals is not for the faint of heart. Estimates place the cost in the trillions annually for the next 15 years; an order of magnitude higher than the billions invested in the Millennium Development Goals. At the Third International Conference for Sustainable Development this past July, leaders discussed ways the finance community can make this leap. The solution requires not only footing the bill for the whole effort, but also policies, practices, and various checks and balances to ensure countries leap 3 steps forward, not 2 steps back.

Moving from billions to trillions requires a new approach. Billions granted by organizations like the IMF and World Bank worked for the Millennium Development Goals, but doesn’t scale well moving forward. Rather, financing must come from a partnership among communities that are public and private, national and global, in both capital and capacity. In essence, government agencies are asking private financial institutions to commit to working together.


Harnessing technology

Financial backing for programs alone won’t get us to the finish line by 2030. Most of the goals need more than funding. Consider Goal 2: to end hunger and achieve food security. Not an easy task when you consider demand for food is quickly outstripping the growth in supply. Researchers estimate that by 2050 we will have global shortages in food supply if major systemic changes are not made soon. This requires a technological leap. In some cases, technology exists, but farmers in underdeveloped countries lack the technology and knowledge to improve crop yields. In some cases, new technology must be innovated and then widely adopted in 15 short years. Not a small feat, though not impossible if recent history is our guide.

The challenge with technology is that innovation isn’t always ideal, forcing tradeoffs. For example, improving electrical output may require the development of dams or coal refineries, which negatively impacts environmental goals. Other energy technologies, such as bio-fuels used to power cars, protect the environment but consume food staples needed to achieve food security. These are not easy decisions to make. Furthermore, success is very dependent on a private sector to develop and distribute new innovations that align with the goals. It also depends on consensus building at the global, regional, national, and local level to vet and adopt the best technologies, and it depends on countries having the capacity to absorb them.


Building capacity

Desire alone is not enough to achieve results; it also requires capacity. Consider Goal 2 again. It is insufficient to simply desire food security. Countries must also have capacity to cultivate or import food. Similarly, achieving universal education requires capacity to teach everyone; achieving carbon emission reductions requires capacity to monitor and eliminate pollution. It’s a tall order for many countries with poor infrastructure, a weak economic base, and unstable political state. Huge investments must be made to help stand the poorest countries on their feet, and to track progress.

Tracking progress itself requires massive capacity building in many countries. Government statistical offices tend to be the main vehicle for monitoring national progress through household surveys sent every five to ten years. Many countries may survey their population only one or two times before 2030, and likely won’t capture the granularity needed to affect change. Things get further complicated for countries lacking statistical offices. The UN Statistical Commission estimates 78 countries need statistical capacity building over the next ten years just to collect basic survey data, likely costing $500 million to $1 billion annually.

As discussed in a recent blog post, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon believes the data revolution should be harnessed to help monitor and achieve the sustainable development goals. A very sensible idea given the exabytes of data embedded in data centers, websites, smartphones, and increasingly, things. In essence, there is a capacity in private sector databases to monitor the global goals, if multi-stakeholder partnerships can form to mine this digital gold. But harnessing the data revolution also requires capacity building. Many countries have yet to experience the data revolution due to a lack of Internet access. Recognizing the challenge, ONE and a consortium of organizations made the Connectivity Declaration, calling on governments to ensure Internet access for all of humanity by 2020.

Though last, Goal 17 is not least. Rather, it is absolutely essential to establishing the foundational infrastructure necessary to achieve the other 16 goals. Without a growth in technical prowess, financial and economic strength, and core capacity within developing countries to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals, its unlikely progress will be made at all.

Nobody ever said achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be easy. But that’s not a reason to lose faith. Many thought sending mankind to the moon was, well, quite literally a “moon shot,” but we eventually accomplished the impossible by taking “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The Sustainable Development Goals represent 17 urgent leaps for mankind, for without them humanity may run out of steps to take.

This article originally appeared on Digitalist Magazine, in the Improving Lives section. See here

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