In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were introduced, establishing 17 ambitious “Global Goals” from ending poverty to improving health and reducing inequality. The SDGs were designed to finish work that began under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative introduced in 2000, a program credited with helping lift a billion people out of extreme poverty, cutting child mortality by half, and combatting HIV/AIDS. There is great enthusiasm for the SDGs—true “solutions” for many long-term issues seem within our grasp. However, it is increasingly clear that if we are to fulfill the promise of the SDGs we will need to radically change our frame of reference. Where in the past we have looked at progress with a macro lens—based on big actors and big solutions—success for the SDGs will almost certainly depend on our ability to develop and promote decentralized, small-but-scalable, localized solutions. Why? Because in a very real sense, for the SDGs we are the goal, and we are the solution.
We Come from a Big Place
For the last 50 years or more our focus in development has been on large-scale progress: finding the next green revolution, creating the next large foundation or initiative to cure disease, or the next large infrastructure project to provide connectivity. Steeped in academic excellence, the model had the developing world as a taker of knowledge and “capacity building”. Experts from large institutions like the World Bank and United Nations mobilized large budgets and defined the terms of trade, hosting conferences and creating nomenclatures that few outside of true insiders could understand. In the name of our collective success, the model called for collective action, though historically this mostly meant action by big collectives. And under the model, good men and women did good—and mostly big—work.
But times have changed. Many global south nations now have plenty of their own “experts” and solutions are coming from centers outside of London, Paris, and Washington. More knowledge can be shared more easily with the proliferation of internet, cellphones and other technology. At least as importantly, it is clear across the world that many regular citizens no longer trust the experts, and often feel belittled and even manipulated by a system that describes them in distant terms, as “beneficiaries” or “stakeholders”. They—we—don’t connect with data they can’t touch that seems foreign and complicated. The situation is not bleak: looking at just three of the SDGs we can see how progress is being made with smaller starting solutions. But sustainability depends on a much deeper engagement of the broader population.
Consider SDG2: Ending Hunger and Creating Sustainable Agriculture
Current funding for large-scale famine relief is by nearly all measures inadequate and donor fatigue is rampant. By 2050, the world will have to feed over 9 billion people, a 60% increase in yield from current production. Meanwhile, one third of all food produced annually is lost or wasted according to the FAO—an annual $1 trillion loss at retail value. The existing food system is centralized, while smallholder farming—the livelihood of 1.5 billion people—struggles economically. As the average age of farmers worldwide climbs toward 60 years of age, we need to engage citizens to make agriculture more viable and attractive, especially for youth, while tackling the enormous food loss and waste in the current centralized food system.
And we can do this with small-but-scalable approaches to increase farmer education, productivity, and distribution. A single farmer in Burkina Faso was able to develop a local solution to improve water usage and increase soil fertility in West Africa, sharing results largely through informal farmer networks, and creating results large enough that they can be seen from space. New networks like Farmerline in Ghana share ag extension information seamlessly through technology, helping farmers build and share knowledge and create a community of over 200,000 users—all for a budget around $1 million. And other agtech solutions like Twiga, Hello Tractor, and Agromovil are helping improve delivery, putting more food on the table and more money in the pockets of small farmers. In each case, the tech and innovation is crucial, but the network of users and the data they generate as participants is the key.
Consider SDG8: Growth and Decent Employment
Despite the astounding economic progress of the past few decades, half of global wealth is still held by 1% of the world’s population and economic inequality appears to be worsening in many parts of the world. Mechanization and Artificial Intelligence is putting pressure on employment around the world while past development means more people in more places are living longer, healthier lives—keeping them in the workforce longer. Large-scale employers—whether government or large companies—are unable to fill the gap in employment. With over 125 million Africans slated to age into the global workforce in the next decade, we need new, decentralized approaches to reach the broadest audience—and we need them soon.
As in agriculture, decentralized approaches like entrepreneurship training and microfranchising may be the best—or the only—solutions for employment and growth. Microfranchising provides a platform for people with energy and ambition to “employ themselves” and helps provide service to markets that larger companies might not. Microfranchises like Living Goods provide opportunity for agents who go door-to-door to extend healthcare services in Uganda. Training programs like Udacity seek to build technical skills in small bits that fit the decentralized market, offering nanodegrees—small, professional courses—to thousands around the world. And the advent of blockchain and the Internet of Things technology show the power of decentralized approaches, breaking barriers to trust and contracting that have stifled opportunity to this point for those not “connected” in the current economic system. In all cases jobs, training, and trust are being built in decentralized ways around citizens.
Finally, Consider SDG13: Climate
Nearly all scientists globally are in agreement about the facts: our current patterns of consumption and pollution are unsustainable and border on the suicidal. Air is unbreathable in Beijing and trash fills the streets of many developing nation capitals. Still, despite the agreement around statistics, we have taken limited action. The global public is mostly out of the conversation leading to worry, but not urgency. Big investments in legacy technologies create significant opportunities for political capture in countries large and small. Regulation is neither quick- or large-scale enough to address the challenges. At the same time, regardless of the extent of human responsibility for climate issues, it is clear we are a contributor to the mess.
And yet we have the power—in a decentralized way—to make big changes. If each U.S. citizen replaced chicken with plant-based foods just one meal a week, the carbon dioxide savings would be equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off U.S. roads. We could reduce the over four metric tons of plastic waste that enter the ocean every year—but we need to do it together: cross-border legislation would be unenforceable and wouldn’t stop the cause… which is us. We can see the power of committed individuals—without big institutional backing—to make change and create awareness as it did in Brazil, which despite actual opposition from numerous governments, lowered its deforestation rate by 71% between 2004 and 2016, mostly through the efforts of one man: Antonio Vicente.
The list could go on… The facts show that—as just one example—investments in girls’ education benefit any society that chooses to invest, but progress on the SDG around improving the lives of women and girls will only be sustainable through decentralized action, as most political structures around the world remain dominated by men. Entrenched political interests still dominate conversations in most nations around energy, education, and the pursuit of peace.
To Build SDG Sustainability, Its Time for Us to Be the Measurers
It’s not enough to decentralize delivery and discovery. We need to decentralize measurement as well. People everywhere need to see and touch progress and they don’t have the time or resources to devote their lives to it like experts do. And yet we need their participation, their savings, and their collaboration. To get this sustainability, we must also find ways to involve them in the measuring progress—measuring their own progress alongside our progress as societies. The data we all generate and work to gather is data we will all believe. It is data we will all be invested in. And through this process we can build a new, better dynamic where together we participate in building decentralized progress, measure it for ourselves, and where ultimately, we’ll be prompted to take more action.
We have made great progress in the last 50 years relying on the big. But the time for decentralization has come. Progress on the SDGs will depend on small-but-scalable solutions, devised by individuals around the world with the creativity and local knowledge to drive change. The experts will remain important, but they can only do so much. The solution for SDGs is in front of us—because it is us.
About the author: Andrew Mack is Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, a specialized Washington, DC-based consulting firm that helps companies and NGOs do more and better business in Emerging Markets. A former World Bank project manager and banker with experience in more than 80 countries, Mack is internationally-recognized for his work on economic development issues and technology policy in Africa, Latin America and other underserved regions.