Courage, Conviction and SDG Implementation

Oh boy, 2016. I don’t feel old enough for the Millenium Development Goals to have come to their completion (the plan, at least; so many many targets were not acheived, but not for lack of trying). Where did the years go? What did we do with those years? How many steps forward and how many steps back were taken?

I’ll be honest and say that I’m terrified of what will happen should we fail to actually achieve the SDGs (in large part, if not whole). I’m terrified of new diseases emerging and once-eradicated diseases reemerging due to antibiotic resistance (and people who don’t vaccinate, but that’s another issue). I worry about the scale of environmental destruction and just how hot it’s going to get (and how thirsty we’re going to get). I read as much as anyone and I see the progress we are making to reduce poverty (frankly, we’ll never eradicate it) and then how easily it is to back slide – economic crises, natural disasters, climate change, corruption and violence. How do we stay positive and stay the course that the SDGs have laid out for us in the face of these worries and challenges?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Somehow the adoption of the SDGs was supposed to make all of us hopeful and view the future with rose-tinted glasses (indeed, I have written previously of the need to set aside our cynicism here). While it is important to remain hopeful and positive, we also must remain realistic about just how difficult SDG implementation is going to be. The entire process of SDG drafting and planning has been so grand in scope that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that everything will happen – needs to happen – at the community level. We feel daunted by the scope of what the SDGs intend for us to accomplish and so we read a lot about their impracticality, their lack of applicability because they are global and thus out of reach of the average person, we read about the 170+ indicators that need to be reported on. Indeed, it is overwhelming. But only if we choose to let it be.

There was an interesting opinion piece by Claire Melamed at ODI on moving past the planning and ceremony to the actual ‘doing’ of SDG implementation (here). She highlights the need to step away from the global focus and turn our attention to country-based implementation. ‘Political action has shifted to countries. The vision is global, but those who want to use the SDGs as levers for action – or, more likely, on particular sectors or issues – will have to work one country at a time to form coalitions.’ It is important to remember that the SDGs are the framework, but action will be local – national goals but, more importantly, sub-national action. As I previously wrote here, in order for the SDGs to be successful, they need to be ‘localized’ – targets selected based community needs, with results scaling up to impact on the national level, contributing to national and global SDG targets.

But it is still a daunting task. In theory, we identify, plan, budget and implement. We monitor and report and problem solve. In practice, though, we never account for the confidence needed to tackle problems, to overcome community resistence to new ideas or approaches, to counter feelings that the task is insurrmountable and we should all simply submit to our fates. I admit I fall victim to these feelings frequently. It takes a lot of mental strength to keep going when you feel there is more against you than for you. It is also easy to tell others that they have to be positive and try harder. We need to practice what we preach.

Over the New Year holidays I found myself in discussion with my sister-in-law about her business. She has the skill and ideas to make her business a success (she’s breaking into fashion and jewelry design). Her designs are popular but every time she has a success – takes a step forward – she seems to then take two steps back. Lack of support and days with poor sales would see her abandoning her business strategy, revealling that she wasn’t sticking to her production and marketing plan. Bad days undermined her confidence and courage to keep going more than good days would boost her up. I explained that in the beginning (i.e. two to three years) there will likely be more tough days (bad days) than good ones. The deciding factor of whether or not she will make a success of her business is whether or not she has the conviction to commit to the goals she has set for herself, no matter how bad the bad days are, or how many unexpected challenges she has to face. We talked about Plan B – there isn’t one. She is a single mother (recently divorced) unwilling to return to her former career as a flight attendant because it would take her away from her daughter far too often. So this business has to work. She has to commit, to dig deep and find the courage and build up her confidence to overcome the daily and longer-term challenges.

It was this conversation that made me realize that this is the missing piece of SDG implementation. The SDGs will be implemented at the local level, and so it is that level of government and communities that we must support. We cannot simply advise on the technical, we must also provide moral support, particularly to community leaders. It’s a hand holding of a different kind, the otherside of the capacity building coin. The challenges of achieving the SDGs will seem too overwhelming, undermining commitment to see them through. We need to ensure that local governments and communities have the support to push through those times when one step forward is followed by two steps back. Because it will happen. But we can see it through – make a success of the SDGs and our futures because, like my sister-in-law, there is no Plan B – if we have the courage and conviction to overcome not only the logistical challenges, but the emotional and psychological ones as well.

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