The bumper-sticker mantra ‘think globally, act locally’ is an important factor as countries strive to end poverty, protect the environment and curtail conflict. But it will also require institutions to align world economies with financial systems, as well as calling on discrete leadership from the United Nations. It’s the defining challenge of our times.
In 2015, all 193 members of the United Nations jointly agreed to a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. Boiled down to their essence, the targets aim to end extreme poverty, promote inclusive economic gains, protect the environment, and strengthen institutions that mitigate conflict.
But the fabric of international cooperation has altered dramatically in just two years. These shifts raise the stakes on three major balancing acts that will be key to SDG success.
First, any “global goals” will only resonate if societies support their own “local goals” to underpin them. Around the world, demands for more inclusive community-level prosperity are quickly disrupting long-held political norms. The SDG tagline of “no one left behind” gains new layers of meaning every week. If people are going to cooperate on international issues, they need to feel forward movement on their local priorities, too. The more citizens feel a sense of hope in their own lives, the greater their willingness will be to work with others.
Second, the SDGs need to straddle the dynamics of the entire global economy, not just the so-called “development” or government sectors. The foremost economic, social and environmental challenges are taking shape at a time when more than half of humanity will soon count among the global middle class, with incomes of roughly $10 to $100 a day. The world economy is worth more than $100 trillion a year in purchasing power parity terms, the majority of it market-driven. To align our global system of commerce with the SDGs, the underlying economic plumbing needs to align.
This means the world’s business financing systems need to synchronize with the SDGs. Doing so requires mutually reinforcing action across key “links in the chain” of market finance. To start, companies need to be able to benchmark how their products, services and supply chains are helping or hurting the SDGs. Regulators need to implement coherent industry-level reporting standards that measure consistency with SDG achievement. Investors at the top of the capital food chain need to pursue long-term horizons in which the returns to SDG-consistent outcomes outweigh risks of short-term volatility and uncertain gains. Policymakers need to create incentives that ensure pro-SDG actions can be profitable while making anti-SDG outcomes costlier.
Individual success stories of private sector alignment with the SDGs are already showing up. Major multinational corporations, such as Unilever, are reorienting their business strategies around long-term sustainability plans. Many large pension funds and institutional investors are calling for “focusing capital on the long term” while such investors as Aviva call for league tables that rank companies based on SDG-relevant public indicators. A dozen stock exchanges around the world now require environmental, social and governance reporting for listed companies. The U.S.- focused Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, chaired by Michael Bloomberg, has proposed initial benchmarks for 79 industries. Meanwhile, many governments are testing combinations of carrot-and-stick policies to promote worker protections, reduce pollution, and stimulate healthy living environments. To achieve the SDGs, each relevant industry and geography needs to ramp up the pace to forge its own interconnected links of the chain.
A third crucial balancing act will take shape at the United Nations. On one side of the equation, U.N. leadership is crucial. A talented new secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, and a full complement of senior officials will need to serve as beacons of creative problem-solving on practical global priorities. For its part, the General Assembly offers unique legitimacy as the one major venue where every country has equal voice. Governments need to use the forum to report pragmatically on SDG progress, soliciting regular peer feedback on their respective and collective strategies.
Conversely, sometimes the U.N. will simply need to stay out of the way. A global society comprising more than 7 billion people is much too big for all its creativity to be coordinated by any single organization – or, in the U.N.’s case, a single network of organizations. Countless SDG breakthroughs will be generated by business, civic and policy entrepreneurs operating far away from multilateral entities such as the U.N. or World Bank. No one should feel obliged to wait for guidance from an international official. Everyone should feel encouraged to start crafting their own approaches.
In the best case, common global ambitions can help spur major breakthroughs. A recent study I co-authored found that, during the Millennium Development Goal era from 2000 to 2015, at least 21 million extra lives were saved and at least 59 million more children completed primary school as a result of accelerated global progress, especially in the poorest countries. Such results remind us that yesterday’s trends need not define tomorrow’s path.
Today, the SDGs are best understood as a broad set of ambitions reflecting the world’s diversity of vantage points – from global to local, public to private, institutional to entrepreneurial. No single outlook is best. Balancing disparate motivations with the goals’ larger common purpose amounts to a defining challenge of our time.
John W. McArthur is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development program. He is also a senior advisor to the UN Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors for the International Development Research Centre. He has previously been the CEO of Millennium Promise; a Senior Fellow with the Hong Kong-based Fung Global Institute; a faculty member at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs; and Policy Director at the Earth Institute. From 2002 to 2006 he served as Manager and then Deputy Director of the UN Millennium Project. John co-chaired the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice and co-founded the global network of Masters in Development Practice degree programs. You can follow him on Twitter @mcarthur.