How do we make the UN’s 17 goals for sustainable development the ‘to-do list for people and planet’?
Richard Curtis and his Project Everyone team have a plan.
‘….The more famous these global goals are, and the more widely they are understood by everyone….. the more politicians will take them seriously, finance them properly, refer to them frequently and make them work…’ (Project Everyone
So how do you make them famous? How do you share the Global Goals with seven billion people?
The need to engage everyone was clearly the agenda of the UN. On 25 September 2015, the Guardian headline read ‘Global goals received with rapture in New York – now comes the hard part’ quoting UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, “…we need action from everyone, everywhere. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are our guide …they are a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success…"
This message was endorsed by Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of Civicus, the global civil society alliance ‘….most importantly, the SDGs are intended to be owned by people…. the SDGs need to become the people’s agenda and only then will they have a chance of changing the behaviours we need, from individuals reducing their consumption to governments fearing the political price for not meeting their commitments….’ (Guardian, 27 September 2015)
So the message from both these Secretary Generals is loud and clear - if the global goals are going to be successful they need to engage people and be owned by them as a motivating force. This is the ultimate challenge but it is not a new one. Simon Dresner in 2002 wrote in his book ‘The principles of Sustainability’ whilst sadly acknowledging the unavoidable reflexivity of the world he was very clear that ‘…sustainability is a global problem requiring global coordination of action’. From its conception in the early 1980s, the Green movement itself was based on the need for ‘grassroots’ action with the principled omission of centralised decision-making. Action that involves everyone; cue Project Everyone.
It was also clear form the UN messages that the Sustainable Development Goals had to become the people’s agenda and although this could be viewed as a widespread responsibility they are certainly not going to get onto anybody’s agenda if there is limited awareness. Cue the mass promotion tools of advertising. According to Philip Kotler, one of the most eminent theorists of marketing, to enable companies to inform consumers ‘…they must skillfully use the mass-promotion tools of advertising, sales promotion and public relations…’
We put this to the test by inviting two experts in mass communications to review Richard Curtis ‘short, dynamic and snappy explanation of the goals’
Our discussion quickly revealed that the purpose of mass awareness of the global goals was clearly central to the communication that Richard Curtis had created and the payoff ‘Tell Everyone’ built on the message. But equally quickly, our discussion turned to ‘how do you put this into action and is awareness itself sufficient as a goal.’ Tell everyone seemed empty without a more specific call to action. Is the importance of ensuring that everyone is aware enough to put pressure on government? The role of commercial communication in building awareness is certainly an important step in helping people to make decisions and become more receptive. But does awareness of the goals alone without understanding have a role? Without pragmatism and direction, does awareness alone have relevance? Without the application, is the communication too high level?
One of the experts also highlighted the concern ‘that if you make people feel like they’ve “done good” by retweeting something or some other ‘nebulous action’, it may actually be worse than doing nothing because of the opportunity cost of not doing something meaningful instead’. He referred to a recent study that showed that people who brought reusable shopping bags to the grocery store bought more organic food – but more junk food as well. Reusable Bags Make People Buy Organic - and Junk. The idea being that “you do good and then you treat yourself to a cookie”
Richard Curtis is certainly leading the way with his communication in the sense of being the first piece of communication that builds awareness of the goals but is it an example of leadership? Is leadership more than building awareness? The communication experts both agreed that to follow the leader they needed to know where the leader was going. They felt that leadership was about motivating people towards goals but is the global nature of the campaign potentially a barrier? The communication was bringing the goals into focus but it did not bring a local perspective that placed you at the centre of the advertising concept. Would there be a better response with local relevance? Do calls to action by their nature need to be locally applicable?
Sir John Hegarty, the creator of the advertisement, explained in a recent interview on that the key objective of the communication was to ‘….create positivity around a plan…’ (BBC World News, July 2015). So maybe this was never intended to be a lightning rod but the lighting of a fire to start a wild fire. Richard Curtis, Cannes said recently at the Lions Festival of Creativity, July 2015 that if you ‘…aim for the stars…’ you may ‘…. just get over the trees…’. Building awareness could get you over the trees but by creating deeper understanding, and a plan that brings out the role that individuals can play, might we reach the stars?
This blog was contributed by a friend of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS). You can see some of the IFLAS festival participants discuss leadership and the importance of story telling, including Indian Actor and Director Nandita Das, philosopher Charles Eisenstein, Futerra founder Ed Gillespie, and IFLAS Founder Jem Bendell. You can discuss it on our Sustainable Leaders group, or come join us in April 2016 at our Spring School, where we explore these issues in depth.