“Translating” the SDGs to leave no one behind

Sara Speicher, WACC UK Development Manager, attended the recent “European Development Days” in Brussels.

At a June 7 special event during the “European Development Days”, an impressive panel including royalty, Nobel peace laureates and a multinational CEO, were challenged to identify the “transformations” needed to achieve the sustainable development goals and the ultimate aspiration to “leave no one behind”.

Listening to the exchanges, I was most struck by the “translations” that were highlighted instead.

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, emphasized that we have to bring the language down to the people: “People need to see themselves in it. We need to take [SDGs] home,” which she says is both translating the idea into local languages and simplifying it.

Alaa Murabit, The Voice of Lybian Women, and UN SDG Global Advocate also said we “must translate goals into people’s personal lives. We must go local.”

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion also focused on the financial cost of achieving the SDGs:

Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, says our whole system on which we operate is based on leaving people behind; it is based on personal interest. He looked at figures at the huge gap in wealth in which 1% of people in the world own more wealth than 40% in third world. “If we compare an elephant to a microscopic [insect], do we call this ‘inequality’? No, they are completely different.” This was the background for his call that we “Need to do business not for making money, but for doing good in a business way.”

Jeffrey Sachs, Professor, Columbia University and UN SDG Global Advocate, was more direct. He stated that if rich people paid a little more tax, poor people would all have an education. There are over 2,000 billionaires whose total net worth is 7.7 trillion dollars. 1 percent of that is 77 billion. “We make the problems harder than they are,” he stated bluntly.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, also acknowledge the responsibility of the wealthy, indicating that we know who they are, and it is possible to get them into a room to discuss responses. But he emphasized the overall need for values and ethics in business. He emphasized dignity and respect of all individuals and following the Golden Rule that is part of so many religions. “If we do not want something to happen to us, why are we complacent with it happening to others?” He called on all businesses to work towards the common good.

And Alaa Murabit interjected additional advice that I hope was heard by the high powered investors and organizers in the room: “Sometimes we ignore what is practical and cost-effective for what sounds sexy and cool.” She gave the example of that educating girls has been shown to be a powerful contribution to tackling climate change.

The issues of language, approach, values and costs all resonated with WACC’s vision of empowering and equipping communities with information, education, channels and tools in order to be agents of positive change for their communities and beyond.

But while some of the speeches during the evening were inspiring, I couldn’t help also despairing that actions panelists described so sensibly remain only nice words. In fact, the inaction in the face of growing threats (Polman’s warning that we face an even greater financial crisis in the near future being one of them) force questions about the ability to make progress on any of the goals.

But Leymah Gbowee addressed that directly: “Do I have fears about the goals? Yes. Do I let that stop me doing the little I can do? No.”

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