We never thought to link gender equality or social integration to water-saving projects, but the UN’s sustainable development goals broadened our horizons. By Sonja Graham
The UN’s global goals are a set of 17 comprehensive global success measures for sustainable development that were adopted in 2015 by almost 200 world leaders after the biggest consultation in the organisation’s history which aim, by 2030, to bring an end to poverty, hunger and inequality and to address climate change.
Yet despite the fact that the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are relevant to almost every conceivable charitable cause, charities in the UK just aren’t using them.
A recent report [pdf] suggests that almost a third (30%) of charities don’t think the goals are relevant to UK organisations, while fewer than half (47%) of respondents said the goals were relevant to their day-to-day work. Private companies are jumping on the bandwagon, setting up working groups and integrating the goals into their corporate social responsibility strategies, yet only 39% of UK charities said the goals were part of their current strategy.
Charities are missing a trick here. Even from the most cynical financial point of view, it makes sense to talk the same language as our funders.
As the director of an environmental charity that works to tackle excessive consumption, it is not a huge surprise to me that charities have responded less than enthusiastically to the SDGs. When I asked colleagues what the SDGs might mean for us as a charity, the response was varied: a marketing manager worried about the complications of running SDG branding alongside our core messaging; a trustee passed it off as “UN mumbo jumbo”; and a project lead would only talk about the SDG most relevant to their work.
It wasn’t until I asked our youth team – coordinators for our programmes with schools and young people – that I felt visions broaden. Kids love mapping out interconnections between issues and they were the first to really get what the goals could mean for our projects.
The top-scoring team in our youth water-saving programme, for example, set up an electrical waste-recycling scheme. While this is not the first activity that would spring to mind when trying to conserve fresh water, they saw that electronics dumping was a big pollutant in their local lake. Another team used the topic of water to integrate new migrants into their class. They explored the relationship of different cultures with water and the impact water access has on education and gender equality. Put simply, if girls have to walk a four-hour round trip to collect water, there isn’t much time for learning.
Our 12-year-old beneficiaries could see real value in exploring the links between social, environmental and economic issues, even when we adults seemed to need more convincing. At Global Action Plan, we had never thought to consider gender equality or social integration as part of our water-saving projects because, well, that’s not our mission. But if we are to solve these major social and environmental challenges, we need to broaden our viewpoints and think about interconnectivity. Through very minor tweaks our youth water programme now covers 13 of the SDGs, and we are setting up a digital platform for children to take part in challenges across all 17.
It’s admittedly not practical to talk about global issues all the time, but the SDGs can help with our day-to-day work too.
First, they give us a simple and globally standardised way to relate our cause to the bigger picture. This motivates staff, who can link our charity’s work to a global movement, is educational for beneficiaries, and helps funders to better understand our impact.
Second, the goals give us a framework to consider how we might be more innovative as we campaign on our own missions. What about a health campaign championing hydration that also advocates for reusable bottles? Or a famine-relief campaign reminding people that everyday purchasing choices have an effect on local food availability abroad?
Finally, they remind us that we must all collaborate. No charity can achieve all the global goals alone. Cross-sector collaboration means companies, governments and NGOs working together to rid supply chains of waste, embrace clean energy, and enshrine strong labour rights and decent working conditions.
I think we have a responsibility to our beneficiaries to support a global initiative that strives for a greener, more equal and plentiful world and we’re up for collaborating with anyone else who wants to try!
Sonja Graham is managing partner at Global Action Plan
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