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Making the SDGs Transformational: UNRISD and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

17 Nov 2015

Making the SDGs Transformational: UNRISD and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
This blog post is published as part of a Series by UNRISD Director Paul Ladd, called Through the Social Lens. In the Series, Paul shares his reflections on current issues in development and how UNRISD's work on social development ties in to these concerns. We would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts while reading the piece. Put your comments in the box at the end and we will do our best to get back to you.

I started as the Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in mid-October. I’ve spent most of my first four weeks in meetings—with government representatives in Geneva, with UN colleagues, and with the UNRISD team. I’ve been grateful for the warmth with which I’ve been welcomed, and the professionalism and commitment of every single member of staff.

In all of these discussions the main questions at the back of my mind have been: What does it mean to work on ‘social development’ at this particular point in history; and what is the best contribution that UNRISD can make?

Keeping people at the centre

Focusing on social development means keeping people at the centre, and recognizing the contributions that can be made by all people, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, physical ability, sexuality or any other characteristic. It is about seeking to enhance well-being by transforming processes, relationships and institutions into ones that are based on equity and justice. The potential for social development is critically shaped by how we run our governments, how we use technology, how we adapt to demographic change, and how we structure our economies.

It is hard not to feel disheartened by the overwhelming array of challenges that humanity faces right now—conflict and violence, intolerance and xenophobia, greed and inequalities, the continued destruction of our one planetary home. The scale of these challenges seems to be matched only by the absence of real leadership and the collective inaction that ensues. This cloud of inaction tends to hurt vulnerable people the most; those with fewer assets to draw on, and those unable to secure their rights—to protection, to representation and to dignity. The current migration crisis in Europe is a case in point, where the analysis of root causes is shallow and short-term.

The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a welcome boost of inspiration and energy at this difficult time. It will clearly not solve all the world’s problems in 15 years: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, as Martin Luther King and Theodore Parker argued. But it offers a recommitment to a form of balanced, equitable and sustainable development that has been elusive through our ages of industrialization and globalization.

A more political agenda

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have many welcome innovations. The aspiration not to tackle issues in silos. The intention to leave no one behind. The recognition that all countries have problems, injecting a welcome degree of modesty. Together they represent much more of a political agenda than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, where the solutions will largely be found in policy change and doing things differently, rather than solely spending more money. The MDGs helped to focus the world’s attention on unacceptable levels of poverty in countries of the global South, but many of the proposed solutions were technocratic in nature and based on financial investment and technology. Sometimes these well-meaning solutions ignored the power dynamics that determine who benefits from them and who is left by the wayside.

Of huge importance—although difficult to measure—is the greater sense of ownership and awareness of the SDGs, and the hope that this will bolster the ways in which we implement and track progress on them. This comes directly from the process through which they were defined, which was opened up to civil society in an unprecedented way, and in the best cases engaged with people directly.

The new development agenda professes to be transformational. But what does this mean in practice?

UNRISD’s interdisciplinary research will be aimed squarely at this question.

UNRISD's critical contribution

Through our three research programmes—social policy, gender and development, and the social dimensions of sustainable development—we intend to make a critical contribution to debates on which policies and institutions, in which contexts, will make the most progress towards achieving the SDGs. That is, which policies could have the most transformational benefits for real people, in all parts of the world. For example:
  • What role do universal social protection systems play in creating more vibrant and equitable societies?
  • How will supporting women and girls to claim their rights contribute to the Goals?
  • What are new ways of structuring our economy so that social and environmental priorities aren’t lost to an exclusive thirst for profit?
  • And how do we keep people and their livelihoods at the centre of debates about energy, food, ecosystems and biodiversity, and climate change?

In taking these programmes forward we will work with researchers and practitioners both inside and outside of the UN, and with our key counterparts in governments and civil society, to ensure that we remain relevant and responsive in both the research and how it is communicated so that it can be taken up and used to greatest effect.

All this points to an exciting few years ahead and makes me proud to be at the helm of UNRISD, an organization that has contributed so much to the cause and understanding of social development over the past five decades.

Paul Ladd is the Director of UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.