The year 2015 is shaping up to be a momentous one. In September, world leaders will meet at the United Nations in New York to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a roadmap for social, environmental and economic progress that will re-define development for the next decade and beyond. This is a promising opportunity to build a true charter for the future of people and the planet, and many people have worked tirelessly to make it a reality. The current draft document circulated by the UN contains 17 goals and 169 targets, trying to tackle an enormous array of global challenges — including poverty, inequality, climate change, and the ongoing destruction of our fragile ecosystems.
The SDGs should be treated as a universal social contract that commits governments, civil society, business, and each and every one of us to a clear course of action.
Key talks between governments to sort out the goals’ intricate details are taking place in New York. Having followed quite a few of these negotiations from the side lines, I know that diplomatic consensus-building is a difficult art. But in all the inevitable back and forth over nuances, we should never take our eyes off the prize: What the world needs is a framework that works. We need smart, actionable goals and targets, not just simple ones. It’s not a matter of quantity, but of quality.
Language is a big part of it. To end poverty, we must have a clearer idea of what it means to ‘ensure significant mobilisation of resources from a variety of sources’. If we are serious about eliminating hunger, surely we should do more than ‘increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation’. I’m sure all this is meaningful, important language in policy circles. But to have everyone truly embrace these goals, we need to be more specific, in accessible, human language.
The UN negotiations over recent months have made unprecedented progress in setting out an ambitious framework for action after 2015. But now the debates must be informed by national realities. If the targets aren’t owned outside of the UN headquarters, if a national planning minister can’t implement them, then we are missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
So, let’s do away with the jargon and articulate what we are really aiming for. Let’s make sure what really matters can be tracked, year on year, by anyone seeking to understand how we are progressing and where we need to intensify efforts.
There are good reasons to deliver clear, compelling goals and targets. By all accounts, meeting the SDGs will require much more than government interventions. Investment, research and development, trade and commerce will be of greater relevance than ever before. In principle, business stands ready to contribute to the success of the SDG. In practice, our ability to make a difference will depend on the strength of the targets and the clarity of our shared vision.
So, delivering the SDGs by 2030 requires more than their declaration in 2015. In the next few months, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to build better targets. September will be just the beginning. Let’s ensure we give ourselves the tools to celebrate success and call out poor performance on the path to 2030. We’ll need nothing less if we are to be the first generation to end extreme poverty and the last to live under the threat of climate change.
(Richard Branson is founder, Virgin Group. The views expressed by the author are personal.)