Hi and welcome to 2018 by the Gregorian calendar! 2017 has left the room. Happy New Year. Many thanks for joining and engaging with The Communication Initiative (The CI) network. We are grateful and honoured to have the opportunity to support your hugely important work and provide the platform for others in the network to learn from your experience and analysis.  


This note continues the tradition of commencing the new year with some general, hopefully strategic, thoughts - sometimes a few rules for action including The Taranaki Rules; (2015); maybe a perspective on where the development conversations are required (2014); some imagined headlines for 2011; and even a declaration such as the Open Development Declaration (2009).  There are a few more sprinkled amongst the blogs at this link.  

For this year’s welcome theme, I want to focus on BIG IDEAS and suggest that we need a few of them to help accelerate development in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).   

This theme may seem strange. The SDGs are now well through their “create the recipe” phase. Sustainability could be considered the big idea. 2017 was the first full operational year for us all to feast on and gain energy from the expansive smorgasbord of 17 SDGs and 169 targets laid on our tables. All of the main development chefs had their favourite dishes placed on that table. Now it is time to eat! 

But I get the sense that the SDGs are not proving to be the delectable meal that was intended when the ingredients were decided. They seem to be struggling to gain traction - to get people in large numbers to the table with enthusiasm and relish. Perhaps it is because there are so damn many of them that it is hard to regard them as goals when they are really a list. They do not seem to have resonated in the way that the goals in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990-2000 - the original template for this process) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) mattered. Both of those sets of goals were simpler, shorter, sharper, and more focused. They were tastier.

This sense of a lack of traction related to the SDGs is confirmed by the data from our rolling survey, where we ask in Q5: “What are the main PRIORITIES for your work at present?” One of the options is "Align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. Over 1,000 people in development in 120 countries have kindly completed this survey. Just 27% at present have chosen that SDG align option as one of their main priorities, even given that they could choose as many priorities as they wished from the list provided. At best, that is not encouraging. (We will publish interim results from the full survey soon – please complete it if you have not done so already.) 

However, the SDGs are our goals. Governments have negotiated and decided. So, if they are not whetting our appetite, we need to put on our media and communication, social change and behaviour change hats and try to figure out both what is happening (or not happening, as the case may be) and what we can do to help fix any issues – make them tastier.

From that perspective, one big issue seems to be that the SDGs do not provide guidance on what to do. What strategies should we adopt to achieve these goals? In particular, what are the possible strategies that cut across or underpin (choose your phrase) a number of goals at the same time?

For most in the development community, this is a non-question. The answer is obvious. The SDGs set the goals. Then it is over to the interested groups and organisations. Those committed to the gender goals develop and implement their strategies. The environmental folks figure out how to achieve the environment-related goals and targets. Likewise the poverty, education, health, governance, and other development sectors have a crack at the goals and targets that turn their crank. 

This is the slice-and-dice approach to development. Everyone selects from the dining table just one or two goals or targets (dishes) and dives in! Even the High-level Political Forum, whose job is to monitor performance and critique strategies, has divided its meetings to focus on separate goals. This approach has three major flaws that could significantly undermine progress with achieving the SDGs.

First, real life is not segmented into separate development compartments. The SDGs do not reflect life’s realities, where all the issues intertwine. Income, health, education, community, rights, environment, gender, equity, economic development, governance and much more are all bound together as one life process. They all affect each other in negative and positive ways. Yet that is not the SDG approach.  

Second, the SDGs have run into a headwind that was not so strong for the Convention and the MDGs. In fact, those processes may have helped provide the puff for this headwind. Over the past decade, at all levels of government - municipal, provincial/state, and national - there has been a tremendous acceleration in the generation and adoption of governments’ own development plans with their own development goals for them in their contexts. So now it is not a matter of adopting the SDGs but negotiating the inclusion of relevant SDGs into their own plan - if they are adopted at all. As we know, all politics is local, and so is all development. The local has primacy. The SDGs do not reflect this changing balance of influence between international agencies and governments when it comes to planning.  

Third, there seems to be a lack of big ideas related to implementation. Why is this even an issue? Surely, it is entirely appropriate that the goals are set and everyone runs off and figures out the best strategy for the SDG that most excites them, as observed above. But, in addition to the real life and government plans points above, the SDGs need a little juice, some oomph, a point of coherence and a clear and simple sense of identity. We do not get that from 17 separate and distinct goals in list form. 

Sadly, the concept “Sustainable” does not provide that oomph and resonance, the binding and driving required to advance an agenda. It is not the “New Deal”, the “Marshall Plan”, or even the “Convention on the Rights of the Child”. It is not even “Structural Adjustment” or the UNICEF riposte to that World Bank approach “Adjustment with a Human Face”. Whether you liked them or not, they all had oomph and drive - say those phrases, and everyone knew what was meant and required, across the development board. They express big ideas. They provide identity. They attract. They act as a common rallying and reference point across all the actions required. “Sustainable” has none of those qualities. It is too passive and too obscure. 

Most likely, it is too late to rebrand the SDGs. But it may not be too late to achieve that driving, binding, rallying, identity, and reference point in relation to all the SDGs. Perhaps there are some big strategic ideas that could achieve that purpose - strategies around which we could all gather, no matter our sectoral interests. Let me float a few. I know that some, or maybe all, could be unpalatable. But they are designed to make the point about the need for a big idea to galvanise and advance the SDGs.

GUARANTEED MINIMUM INCOME: Is there an appetite to promote the concept of a “guaranteed minimum income”?  As a more basic strategy, might it be possible to support a few interested countries to adopt this approach? Community and family revenue levels are at the heart of many of the SDGs. A guaranteed minimum income would really help. 

EVERYONE ONLINE: Should there be a major policy push for open and free (or really low cost) access for all to the internet? Information, knowledge, networks, critical review, and partnerships amongst citizens are crucial for progress across all of the issues highlighted in the SDGs. So it seems to make sense to ensure that the internet is freely available to all - that it becomes an essential service, common good, or basic utility that all can use to help advance their families, communities, and countries. 

$100 IN EVERY BANK ACCOUNT: Why should governments and development agencies be the decision-makers for how development funds are expended? It is possible to make a compelling case that families and local communities may be wiser when it comes to understanding how best to invest limited resources for their own development. I know that this raises all sorts of questions about accountability and trust and corruption and so on. But surely, as a development community, we have moved way past any notion that these concerns are so vast that people cannot be trusted with money. As part of the development tapestry, let’s let families have some cash to decide which SDGs they wish to pursue.  

NATIONAL CONVERSATIONS: The learning from those powerful change processes, social movements, informs all of us that conversation – people debating, discussing, sharing ideas, and focusing on the issues in question – is vital for change. By having national conversations, perhaps we can make a positive out of the perceived weakness of the SDGs having such a large number of goals and targets. Perhaps in order to help accelerate attention to and action on the SDGs, we should all be supporting and facilitating much higher levels of public dialogue - national and local conversation - on the SDGs that make the most sense to be priorities in each context. Engagement increases buy-in. Buy-in increases action. Conversation is key for this.       

SOCIAL JUSTICE: I did say that not everything could be palatable to all. But think about it. As the big presenting issues - child mortality, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, and others - get somewhat under control (huge steps still needed, of course), we will spend more time on issues and priorities that have a strong social component. The SDGs reflect this evolution with the inclusion of well-being, gender equality, decent work, reduced inequalities, responsible consumption, peace, and, yes, justice - to name just a few. So, why not wrap these and other relevant SDGs in an overall process with a forward-looking, action-oriented “brand” that people understand? 

PUBLIC MEDIA: Accelerated progress across the SDGs requires public spaces in which people can share, discuss, converse, learn, organise, and develop new and better programmes and policies. Those processes need engagement across all sectors and populations. Good public media (not state media please!) would really help. Sadly, public media is on the decline. Private and sectoral interests are increasingly dominant. Let’s bring back good, high-quality public media. It was hugely effective in contexts as different as the civil rights movement in the United States, where so called "black media" was a major part of the change process; the peace process in Colombia, where community radio and city TV was equally important to the progress made; and the anti-apartheid action in South Africa, where community media in a large variety of forms played a significant role in that very important change process.    


Thanks for reviewing. We would love to hear your critique and your ideas. Please comment below. 

Wishing you much strength for your vitally important work. Have an excellent 2018. All of us here at The CI look forward to doing our little bit to help you make the progress you desire. Roll the calendar!