Meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations gathered, in part, to discuss the new Sustainable Development Goals, which chart a path for development in the developing world.  These are a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals, which have produce admirable results, as a step forward toward economic and social development in the poorer countries of the world. Last Week’s The Economist included a good article describing the role of capitalists in this development.  (See The Sustainable Development Goals: Beyond Handouts, The Economist, September 19th – 25th Volume 416, Number 8956, p. 55).  The article focused on funding from large foundations begun by successful businesspeople the world over, and transparency focused Non-Governmental Organizations like Transparency International, which have been successful in moving the needle toward more governmental and corporate transparency, and less corruption.  The funding and the NGO’s have laid a firm foundation upon which the SDGs are supposed to build.

There are many difficulties with implementing the SDGs.  As a starting point, obtaining agreement from nations with very different cultures, worldviews and understandings of the goals is, in and of itself difficult.  This difficulty magnifies the difficulty in implementing the strategies necessary to reach the goals.  Most of the signatory countries lack the data collection and processing capacity to measure a baseline for the goals, let alone to measure progress.  Further, the goals may be overwhelming, leading to paralysis that comes with an initial push toward tackling all of the goals.

These difficulties can be overcome with appropriate strategic planning, necessary initial national self –assessment, and strong, dedicated leadership with an eye toward long-term gains.

An individual who I have found to be very wise told a gathering, of which I was a part, that the initial step to accomplishing a seemingly insurmountably difficult task must be taking time to be still at the outset.  Our natural tendency as human beings is to look at our tasks and immediately begin to act.  This inclination is usually counter-productive.  The initial action must be a recognition that the tasks appear overwhelming, and a defined time of being still, rather than immediately stirring to action.  The time spent being still provides that moment of clarity, which is necessary to fight the temptation to act, and provides an opportunity to surrender to the necessity of preparing a productive and thoughtful strategy for accomplishing the tasks and goals.

Each nation that has a real desire to meet these development goals must now take them back home, and consider the best homegrown way to meet the goals.  The goals may be universal, but the means must be culturally appropriate, and must be local.  In most cases the beginning stages will be housecleaning.  Any economic, social or other development contemplated by the SDGs must begin with the building, nurturing and sustaining of trust between the government and the citizenry, and the trust given by the citizens must be in the system, not in the governmental officials.  It is difficult to do so, because developing the will to build trust requires an eye toward the long term, rather than an eye toward short term goals such as maintaining power and control.  Structural change is painful for a government, but without it the primary goal of making the citizens of the poorest and developing countries lives better cannot happen.  The process is also difficult for the people, who simply want things to be better, now; who want their government to be responsive, reasonable, approachable, and predictable, now.  Hearing, “these things take time” is a difficult pill to swallow, but it is also necessary if systemic trust is the real goal.

A big part of the SDGs will be increasing business participation in the development of developing countries.  Investment from small, medium and large sized businesses in the developing world will increase economic activity, spur entrepreneurship, and build local companies in developing countries.  However, without a stable structure, and a general trust in the government (i.e. enforceability of contracts, relative certainty in personal and real property rights, and a stable, fair and predictable regulatory structure), these investments are not possible.

I have seen first-hand governmental officials in the developing world who recognize this and are committed to necessary structural change.  Providing strategic planning assistance, auditing and prioritizing structural change is an art form, but is also rewarding and has real world impact in alleviating poverty.  Providing strategic planning assistance in such a way as to educate the public of the long term nature and expected benefits in light of immediate nature of communication, the short public and private attention spans, and the resultant desire for immediate results is challenging.  But it can be done through a thoughtful public information strategy, which is honest as well as highly and intentionally transparent.  Having an honest accountability partner is necessary for this process to work.  Often, the best strategic partner a government can have in the endeavor is a group like Transparency International, which engenders trust from the people, and will both hold the government accountable when mistakes are made or the process is not as open and transparent as it should be, and also praise the government when it has earned praise for transparency and results.

The SDGs are nice work; however, a nice piece of paper and a ceremony with a lot of talk must give way to thoughtful and planned action.  Both the beneficiary governments and the donor governments must be held to account.  Short sightedness is not only a developing world problem, or a problem with governments in the developing world; in fact, this problem is at least as bad in the rich world.  The difference is the existence of a trust in the system regardless of who may be in power in the government.  Building a trust in the system that is separate and apart from the parties or individuals running the government is an essential first step toward meeting the SDGs.

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