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The UN 2030 SDGs: Time to talk about the big issues

March 2, 2017

The United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. Now it's embarking on a global effort to get people on board.

Mitchell Toomey
Image: Phototek/Ina Fassbender

DW spoke to Mitchell Toomey, director of the UN SDG Action Campaign to find out more.

DW: What exactly is the UN SDG Action Campaign and how important is it for the UN?

Mitchell Toomey: It couldn't be more important, frankly, for the UN and the member states to have a dedicated global campaign. These goals, the sustainable development goals, are a program that is intended to run 15 years until the year 2030. There's always going to be moments when people will activate and get excited. What we need to do is find a way to maintain that excitement throughout 15 years.

The goals were agreed in September 2015. That's more than a year ago. Why start the SDG campaign now?

The UN's efforts to build global campaigns really started in earnest with something the Millennium Development Goals between 2000 and 2015. We started with that lineage, and with existing infrastructure we've been able to do the first wave of popularization. But now we've found there are specific things that are needed. And so after working for a year with our partners to figure out the best approach, we're now ready to go to scale.

Sudan Wasserversorgung bei El-Fasher
Universal access to clean water and sanitation are among the UN's 2030 goalsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Shazly

The headquarters of the UN SDG Action Campaign have moved from New York to Bonn. Why?

Well, there's a couple of reasons. One is purely pragmatic. We need to be covering, in real time, support to every country in the world. From New York you have time-zone problems. Here in Bonn, it's a very central global location. But perhaps more important is the commitment that the government of Germany and the city of Bonn have made to the overall program of sustainability. We haven't found another corner of the world that's this intense in its passion for this issue. And so we wanted to be right in the heart of it.

This new global agenda, the STGs, have 17 goals, 169 targets and lots of indicators. It's a very bulky agenda. How difficult is it to bring that across to people?

It's quite difficult. But this is a reflection of reality. We talked to about 10 million people around the world about what they really need, what's most important for them and their families. They need a lot of different things, and so instead of making it nice and tidy and easier to manage by having fewer goals we decided to make sure we're reflecting reality. And we know all these aspects of development are interrelated. So how do you go about making people excited about that when it seems like a daunting, complicated agenda - you simplify it. You basically make the point that these goals represent the betterment of humanity. These are the things that we're striving for.

Gemüsemarkt in
Education for all children, gender equality and lifelong learning are all part of the SDGsImage: picture alliance/Robert Harding World Imagery

Tell us about the Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development happening in Bonn this week. How is this different from other international conferences targeting sustainable development and communication?

What we needed was an entry point so activists and people who are not deep into the policy discussions can have a starting point. Anybody who has a good idea - there's a place for it. This is not a one-time event. What we planned is a regular gathering every year over the course of the sustainable development goals, bringing people back to Bonn to reflect on what worked, what needed improvement, where are the gaps, where are the difficult points to communicate and work with each other. The UN itself cannot do the scope of work that's required. We need to activate and incentivize others. And so the network that will gather in this event will be those emissaries, those advocates, who go around the world with this message.

How are you conveying that message on a global scale?

We've worked very hard with consumer branding organizations to make a very appealing visual language for the goals. There are 17 goals. We had a lot of issues deciding how to exactly communicate something of that complexity. But by going to consumer branding specialists they found that it's something that you can quite easily integrate into a package where each goal has a specific identity but they fit together in a pattern.

UN 17 Nachhaltige Entwicklungsziele
At current, more than 800 million people worldwide are undernourished. Image: United Nations

Zero hunger - one of the goals - is a food bowl, and it's a simple symbol that we can use internationally. And ultimately, we see these icons starting to emerge as flags. We want to help people rally together under a common flag to say, yes these things are important. Not only do I feel so, but all the governments of the world have agreed and committed that they are important, so I have a justification to do what I'm doing. So establishing a very solid brand was the first step.

UN 17 Nachhaltige Entwicklungsziele
Reducing poverty and inequality is a goal for all countriesImage: United Nations

You've said that by the end of 2018 you want to have 700,000 voluntary activists.

We looked at the overall global population and the percentage of activists that you really need to spur a conversation. And this is a number that we feel is achievable. We did an exercise called 'My World', which is a very simple survey that asks an individual what's most important for you and your family. These activists are going out asking these questions, gathering the information, and we're tabulating that all to create a global picture. The new thinking in communications is that by listening to themselves say something, people internalize it much better than if they just hear an external message. By making that a face-to-face, intimate conversation, you end up taking away a very important message.

To do that, you need to scale massively, you need to have a lot of volunteers out in their communities asking these questions, doing these kind of exercises - youth debates, getting kids in schools to talk about it. This kind of groundswell of support is the kind of community we're supporting in this first annual event - giving them the tools and the techniques and the strategies to go out into communities and make this message heard.

UN 17 Nachhaltige Entwicklungsziele
Local action as well as international efforts are required to realize the goalsImage: United Nations

We're at a time of increasing international division and nationalism but the global goals can only be reached if all nations work together. How big a risk is  there that this major plan will fail?

We have to be ready for anything. What we have to show is that by having a plan itself - that's already progress. Despite the political turmoil we're living through, there is a consensus of what the basics should be. Now the question is, how? While they are global in scope, these goals are really targeted at each country. We want this to work everywhere, but we really want that conversation to happen domestically in each country. We feel this is a moment you can take advantage of to talk about these big issues.

Mitchell Toomey was appointed director of the UN's Millennium Campaign in January 2015. He has worked on citizen crowd sourcing to set the post-2015 UN development agenda, as well as citizen engagement campaigns for Rio+20 and the World Humanitarian Summit. He is currently director of the UN SDG Action Campaign.

The interview was conducted by Anke Rasper. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Anke Rasper
Anke Rasper Anke is a senior editor with DW's environment team.